Why an inclusive culture is the key

to accelerating your strategy


Published on: January 2023

Written by: Lacee Jacobs

Organizational culture has the power to be an incredible strategy accelerant – but when your culture isn’t inclusive, your organization won’t reach its potential because everyone isn’t committed to doing their best work. So, how do you create an inclusive organizational culture that will ignite your strategy?

To start, leaders need to understand how culture influences the well-being of their people. They need to be willing to hold up a mirror and welcome the opportunity to see the gap between their organization’s current culture and the aspirational culture they wish they had.

What does it take to understand your organization’s culture in its full complexity? How can you invite the truth about your culture so that you can address what is really getting in your way?

When addressing cultural challenges, most organizations turn to surveys as a “check the box” activity to collect data and evaluate their current state. Leaders often assume that people will feel safe being open and honest in their responses. Anonymous surveys are a well-intended approach that prompt employees to share their genuine experiences. Unfortunately, the results do not always tell the whole story.

Why surveys are missing the mark
  1. Psychological safety is requisite for any evaluation. You will not get an accurate understanding of the state of your culture if employees believe that a survey isn’t confidential, or that there will be retribution for negatively-interpreted responses. Most employees are unlikely to report their true feelings if they fear there will be consequences for what they have shared.
  2. Surveys are subject to social desirability bias, which is the tendency for employees to overreport good behaviors and underreport less desirable ones. When employees face the potential for retribution or retaliation for unpopular responses, they are more likely to paint a positive picture of your organization that doesn’t get to the heart of what’s going on in your culture.
  3. “What have you done for us lately” is often the sentiment of survey participants – if employees believe that their feedback isn’t taken seriously by the organization, they won’t participate honestly.Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
  • Have you communicated with participants since the last survey?
  • Have issues raised been acknowledged, addressed, or resolved?
  • What (if anything) has been done to mitigate reported problems?
  • Did you formally thank employees for taking the time to contribute to improving the culture?

The bottom line is that employees need to see and believe that surveys are confidential and used to drive the change they care about, or they will not bother reporting honestly and thoroughly.

Despite these drawbacks, many organizations will continue to utilize surveys to evaluate their culture. If this is the case for your organization, be sure to put guardrails in place so that privacy is protected and employees feel safe to provide insights. Share openly about how evaluations will be used, and who will have access to the results. Build the psychological safety necessary for employees to be honest, and your audit will be a success.

Even with these guardrails in place, surveys are still an incomplete solution for better understanding your organizational culture. So, what else can you do to understand and transform your organizational culture?

Don’t just evaluate your company culture: observe it.

How to observe your culture
  1. Gather unbiased perspectives from new employees.
    New employees aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid yet! They’ll come to the table without knowledge of the company’s history, cultural dynamics, and ways of working. They are great allies in the observation process, and may even share past experiences and ideas from other organizational cultures that will speed up necessary evolution.Ask new hires to spend their first month observing the culture. Do this without asking prompting questions (Do people work late? What is the feedback culture like?), or providing context. Give them license to explore without clouding their judgment with your own biases. This approach becomes a win-win – they add value immediately, and you reap the benefits.

    Gather feedback from people across functions, experience levels, and backgrounds. You want to be sure to get the most complete picture of the organization, so diversity of observers is key. The insights should reveal the day-to-day pain points and opportunities for cultural adjustments.

  2. Check your values.
    Company values also influence organizational culture. These values are typically established and (sometimes) modeled by senior leaders, which can be limiting. Authorship is ownership, so your values should reflect the culture you want and need to create, and guide your organization into a promising future.When entire swaths of the company are excluded from charting the organization’s guiding principles, it should come as no surprise that some values don’t resonate. Values make a difference when they are well defined, inclusive, and exemplified by how people engage with one another.
  1. Review your policies.
    Perhaps you’re seeking to have a more customer-centric organizational culture, and all customer-facing decisions must have a sign-off from a leader at the partner level. With this policy in place, junior employees cannot act without a partner’s consent.Those engaging most frequently with the customer are unable to innovate or experiment with solutions that might provide the best service. As you observe your culture, ensure your policies aren’t holding your organization back from achieving its strategic goals.

    Taking an objective perspective can be challenging, so it can be helpful to call on someone outside the company to aid in your observation. They may be able to spot issues that you have been unintentionally (or intentionally) avoiding that need to be addressed.

Throughout the process of understanding your culture, be sure you are conscious about inclusion. This will mold your new culture to truly reflect both the organization and the mindsets, behaviors, and ways of working employees need to move forward together.

After gaining a clear understanding of your organizational culture, make sure there is a plan to address any issues that were uncovered, especially if the culture has some toxic elements. While the CEO, Chairman of the Board, and Board of Directors need to take responsibility for initiating the change, all employees should be held responsible for repairing the culture.

Creating this culture of inclusion means gaining more buy-in from all employees – from the most senior levels to the frontlines, across regions and functions – which is the powerful strategy accelerant you’ve been seeking. You are sending a message to everyone in the organization that you need them and that they are vital to the organization’s success.

A culture of inclusion fortifies your organization with the collective commitment needed to navigate future shifts with greater ease and success. Imagine working for an organization where everyone invests in creating and sustaining a great culture – who wouldn’t want to be a part of workplace like that.

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