One of the most difficult challenges companies have to solve is how to attract and retain great employees.
While company prestige and a healthy compensation package are powerful tools to attract employees, nothing retains them better than your culture. It is the most sustainable, and often cost effective, way to retain great employees.
But what is culture?
Webster’s definition of corporate culture reads: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.
But the most helpful definition of culture I’ve ever come across is from renowned author and activist James Baldwin. He defined culture as what a group of people do to survive.
This is such a helpful definition because, ultimately, the behaviors, habits and routines people develop inside a company are shaped by their understanding of what is required in order to survive –and thrive– within the organization.
Every organization operates following a set of rules. Some are written but most of these rules of survival are unwritten. These are the laws and patterns inside every organization about how to be recognized, fly under the radar, be safe, belong, and get promoted or fired. The people who survive and thrive are those who understand these laws and follow them masterfully.
The difference between great and toxic cultures is the degree of awareness that the company has about the laws that govern its organization. When it is not clear and explicit to all how to thrive, your culture becomes survival of the fittest. And such environments often bring the worst out of people. But when the rules of engagement are not only clear but fair, your culture becomes a powerful retention tool.
How to actually build a great culture? Here are two principles to get you started.
1. be intentional about your culture
Building a culture requires a great deal of intentionality about the kind of organization you want to build.
It starts with being clear about the attitudes, values and goals you want people to share. The foundation of your culture is your core ideology– purpose, mission, values and vision. And that is why, as the late Tony Hsieh used to say, brand and culture are two sides of the same coin.
To build a culture, you have to be clear about the core ideology you want shaping the choices, attitudes and behaviors of people within your organization. But regardless of what you say you value, your culture is only defined by what actually gets people celebrated or chastised, as well as promoted or fired. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. So it’s important to find ways to operationalize your values and recognize opportunities to put your money where your mouth is.
If you say your company values community for example, then it’s important to create rules, policies, traditions, and even amenities that support and reinforce this value. You might decide to implement community lunches, company-wide service opportunities, voting on important issues, or having an open floor plan that fosters connection and collaboration.
A company that values community but consistently puts the needs or opinions of an individual above the group’s is not a collectivist culture but an individualistic one– despite what the words on the wall say.
Your core ideology is only half the battle though because you still have to deliver on employee’s needs and aspirations if you want them to come and stay. To fulfill their needs and aspirations, you have to understand who they are and what drives them.
2. be fluent in people
Whether or not people come and stay at your company is ultimately determined by how well you deliver on their most important needs, and whether your company is a place where they can fulfill their aspirations.
People work to ensure that their basic needs are met. So, of course, one of the most important drivers for them is whether they are being paid a livable wage. But once their basic needs are met, people are longing for more.
There are three types of love people need in order to be happy and fulfilled at work. First, there’s love for the craft. The work itself. The process. It has to be something they have a passion for. Something that often puts them in a state of flow. Something that stimulates them. Something that is challenging enough that it stretches them and keeps them engaged.
Next there’s love of the culture. People are longing for a place where they can belong and feel connected. A place where they feel safe and cared for. Where they have a sense of control over their time and growth. A place where the company’s values align with theirs. A pleasant environment when they can have fun and be themselves.
Finally, there’s love for the cause. Nothing retains people more than the feeling of contributing your talents and skills towards something you find not only exciting but meaningful. Being a part of something bigger than yourself is perhaps the most powerful retention tool. So powerful in fact that people often take a pay cut or pass on opportunities to make more money if you give them a cause.
I believe that most people will stay at a company if they have at least one of those three loves. Two out of three is better. And having all three is ideal.
Ultimately, it’s hard to retain employees if they don’t feel cared for. And whether or not you genuinely care about your employees, you still have to understand what drives and motivates them if you want to get the best out of them and retain them. It's just a lot easier to do if you actually care.
Written by Junior Nyemb, chief empathy officer at grio