Cracking the Culture Code




Discover the transformative power of company culture in our latest article by Stan Slap, CEO of SLAP. With over 25 years of experience in enhancing cultural commitment across global companies, Stan shares invaluable insights into harnessing your culture’s potential. Learn practical strategies for HR executives and leaders to cultivate a thriving workplace environment that aligns with business success. If you’re looking to elevate your organization’s performance, this is essential reading for turning cultural understanding into competitive advantage.

Hi to you all.

Stan Slap here, CEO of SLAP. My company’s exclusive focus is on maximizing cultural commitment. For more than 25 years, in forty-four countries, we have directly influenced billions of dollars in performance improvement for many of the world’s most successful, demanding companies—the kind that don’t include Patience on their list of corporate values.

I mention this because I personally get asked a lot of questions about culture by CEOs, C-Suites, boards, and HR executives. Rather than address future trends in the workplace, I figured it would be most valuable for you if I spent my precious HR Congress Newsletter allowance answering some of the most frequent ones from human capital professionals.

For those of you attending the fabulous HR Congress WorldSummit soiree in Porto, I’ll be around on May 14, giving my keynote morning of May 15. Reach out and we can talk further in person.

What is a culture?

It is the most overused yet often least understood concept in business. In fact, a culture is created whenever a group of people share the same living conditions and environment and so band together to share common beliefs about survival and emotional prosperity to make everyone safer. “How do we survive living in the same jungle (or company), in the same tribe (or team), with the same chief (or manager)? When we know how to survive, how do we get rewarded emotionally and avoid punishment?”

A culture isn’t the beliefs about “the way things are around here.” That’s just the currency of your culture. It obsessively seeks that information, attempts to validate it, and shares its findings exclusively amongst itself.

Your culture is an independent organism, living inside of your company, with its own purpose and all the power to make or break any company plan. Its purpose is to protect itself, and it will only give maximum protection to company  goals when it perceives a reliable through line between what happens for the company and what happens for the culture.

Because a culture exists to protect itself, its antennae are working constantly, its credibility detector is nearly infallible, its perceptions are alarmingly accurate, and its memory is elephantine. You can’t bluff, bribe, or bully your culture into sustainably believing or doing anything. You can’t tell it what to believe or stop it from existing. However, you can take comfort from knowing that your culture’s motives are pure and unchanging, and the strength of its commitment is predictable and correctable.

Your culture will give you whatever you want, but you have to give it what it wants first. Understanding what it really wants from you is the difference between its defiance and its compliance.

What is your advice about how to be a successful HR executive?  

We could fill many large warehouses with detailed reports of things that I know nothing about, although I have a very strong opinion about those things. I absolutely do know how cultures really work and how to get yours to really work for you, though. My success recommendations are solely through this lens.

Like every company, your company is betting its success, and maybe its life, on the ability to constantly roll out new strategies. A successful strategy isn’t planned well; it is implemented well, which belongs to your culture. If you are capable of achieving and sustaining your culture’s maximum commitment to business success, you have a permanent seat at the big table. Make sure your conversation about culture is not that it’s better to have a good culture than a bad one. Instead, make it about the key to business results; use metrics language.

There is a difference between being a successful HR executive and a great one. The difference is in your legacy impact. Maybe your company is successful, and it could argue that it doesn’t need to prioritize the intense protective evangelism of its culture today. It’s going to need it someday; every company needs it one day. Cultural commitment can’t be earned when it’s needed; it has to be banked ahead of time. Even if it’s not urgently needed until after you’ve left the company, put it in place on your watch. You will have fixed the future of your company. This is your legacy impact. This is greatness.

It’s not your most important legacy impact, though. If you are an HR executive, I’m assuming that you have been supervising people for at least a few years, likely for much longer. However long your tenure to date, I don’t think it’s ever too early to look back on the arc of your management career as if it had ended. Someday, you will no longer be a manager; when that day comes, what do you want your career to have been about?

Do you want to have helped to build a company, to have made a lot of money? These are very good things. Do you want to have had a sustained positive influence on the human beings who helped you do that? This is a great thing. You don’t have to give up the good things to get the great thing, but you have to want the great thing.

Understanding the true motivations of a culture can be the difference between your company’s success and its extreme success and between your career success and failure. But this isn’t just about your company and your career.

As a manager, you have a deep, lingering impact on the lives of the members of your employee culture. If they are made to feel small on the job—diminished, anxious, uncertain—that feeling won’t stay on the job. It will jump the fence and follow them home. These same people are also parents, partners, neighbors, and voters. The toxic impact of an anxious, uncertain population is incalculable.

A culture’s profound search for safety and meaning in an uncertain world is a reminder that we all live in this same world, we’re all searching for the same thing. Treating your culture with dignity and empathy is not simply a management performance tactic. It is a mirror that reflects your own true humanity.

Is the impact of a culture’s commitment measurable?

Exquisitely. In my company, we have twelve ways to measure the impact of cultural commitment on business performance for our clients—and for our own reputation, since we promise to achieve it. Here are three of them.

The most obvious is by any metric your company uses to manage, grow, and protect itself, all of which are firmly in the hands of your culture. If your culture wants something to happen in your business, something will happen. If it doesn’t, nothing will happen.

The biggest metric of a culture’s commitment won’t be shown until your culture needs to show it. If your company ever gets into trouble, only a committed culture will step up to save you.

The ultimate metric of our cultural work for clients is sustainability of impact. This depends on two things: 1) The C-Suite becoming indelibly convinced of the connection between increasing commitment of its culture and increasing performance of the business and understanding how to maintain that commitment. 2) The culture believing that its increased commitment will be recognized and responded to in a way that is meaningful to the culture.

Does our culture contain only employees?

Three groups are deciding the success of your company while you read this sentence: your employee culture, your manager culture, and your customer culture. They all exist for the same reasons and operate the same way. The rules of survival and emotional prosperity, and sources of confirmation, are different enough for your managers that they are an independent culture, distinct from your employee culture. Your customers have in common a dependent relationship with your company. That puts them in the same jungle, in the same tribe, with the same chief.

What is the key to commitment from our manager culture? 

Six words describe the job of every manager, at every level, in every company, in every country. These six words are never officially noted in hiring letters or job descriptions, but every manager recognizes they exist:

If it sucks, suck it up.

Since you are depending on the heads of your organizations to remain stoic, maintain the company line, and feed everyone else, then they have to be able to feed themselves as well. If they have to keep sucking it up, those heads are going to explode.

The most important way for you to feed your managers is to allow them to feed themselves by letting them live their own deepest personal values on the job. Our personal values are our very own source of safety, hope, and renewal.

More important than your manager culture’s financial, intellectual, and physical commitment is their emotional commitment. This translates into your managers taking on company success like a personal crusade. The key source of emotional commitment in any human comes from being able to live their personal values in a relationship or environment. For your managers, this means in the relationship with the company and in the environment at work.

Manager may be a great job to have, but embedded in any manager’s job description is the constant requirement to subordinate or even compromise personal values in favor of company priorities. What the company wants done, and how and when it wants it done, must regularly take priority over a manager’s personal values. This is the job of a manager: serve their company first. 

The great fear of the corporate organism is that if it sets managers free to pursue their own deepest priorities, they won’t prioritize success of the company; but the opposite is true. If your managers can turn their job into a mechanism for fulfilling their own values, they will protect the mechanism by making the company more successful and will think twice about leaving. Making it feasible for your managers to bring their own values to work isn’t licensing chaos; it is ensuring control. There is no better way for company success to become a cause to your managers than by not always insisting it is the only cause.

You’re a manager too, so let me address you directly here: Your personal values are your own definition of what life looks like when you live it exactly the way you want to. So of course you should live your personal values in life. But why should you live your personal values at work? This is an excellent question to ask—if your attorneys are planning an insanity defense.

You are spending more than half of your waking hours working, traveling to work, and thinking about work. Work-life balance is not a matter of escaping from work; it’s a matter of living the way you want to, whether you’re at work or not. If you want one thing from your job and a different thing from your life, you’re going to have a hard time achieving either. If you don’t know what’s true for you, everyone else has unusual influence. This is your one and only precious life. Somebody is going to decide how it’s going to be lived, and that person had better be you.

Those are our personal values. What about our company values?

No matter how well-intentioned, officially declared company values are often the gateway drug to cultural detachment.

When a company declares values, it is saying to its culture that the very DNA of the company is being distilled into three, five, or seven words and their descriptions. These are presented as the most important things to know about the company, unchanging absolutes. And so a culture expects the stated values to be protected absolutely. When that doesn’t happen for whatever reasons, the company has taken the most profound of human concepts (values) and pitched it to the most profound of human organisms (a culture) under perceived false pretenses. Trust is fractured at a very deep level.

It’s important to have sacred standards and principles that govern your company. When you compile them, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not confusing strategies for market domination—which change constantly, especially under pressure—with real values—which never change, especially under pressure. The best idea of all is to stop referring to them as Our Values and instead present them to your culture as Our Obsessions. These three or five or seven concepts are what your company is obsessed with as its operating standard and intention.

Will your company always operate according to these obsessions? Of course not; this is the real world. Don’t ask your culture to trust the company by whether it always meets these obsessions. Ask it to trust the company by the ferocity of company response if you ever don’t. This takes the weight off the C-Suite for having to be flawless in protecting and promoting what’s most essential.

How do we increase important behaviors in our culture, like accountability, innovation, resilience, and courage?

If you want your culture to embrace a process, you have to teach it. If you want your culture to embrace a behavior, you have to convince it. Your culture is a human organism, and these behaviors are human behaviors; it already has the latent capacity to give all of them if it believes it’s safe and sane to do so.

What is the one dumbest thing we could do when it comes to our culture?

That would be to blame your culture for how it’s treated.

Your culture is not misbehaving; it is simply reacting to how it reads its environment. Your culture is not naturally anti-business, anti-change, or anti-performance, but it is most definitely anti-unsafe. Anything it perceives as unknown, undependable, uncertain, or unreliable has threat potential, and your culture will back as far away from endorsing it as possible.

Whatever you want your culture to do, and how and why you want it done, is never as important as why not. Given the corporate logic and urgency of any strategy or goal, why would your culture not give its full commitment to making that happen? If it’s not fully committing, it believes it’s not safe and sane to do that, and it believes it has empirical evidence to prove that to itself. You may have a culture problem in that case, but it’s not your culture’s problem.

What is the one smartest thing we could do when it comes to our culture?

It doesn’t matter how carefully the executive team plans the company’s road to the promised land; that road is going to change before you reach your intended destination. The key to success is not to focus solely on the road but on building the powerful engine that will get you down the road as fast and as sure as you need to go, regardless of detours, bad weather, or competition along the way. That engine is the will of your culture. Cultural commitment is not soft stuff; it is the stuff of hard-core business results.

Your culture is smart, and it understands company strategies. It may just not understand why it should get up for making those strategies happen. It is not the responsibility of your culture to understand the business logic. It is the responsibility of your business to understand the culture’s logic.

Get this one thing right, and you’ll be unbeatable in any market you choose to own.

Written by: Mihaly Nagy

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