Somewhere along the way, business got too business-y. It got too full of itself and lacking humanity. Whatever made that first sale, first location, or first idea take off probably was passion: the founder was so passionate about its existence everyone got on board. Humans follow humans first, and they follow ideas second. And when those humans trust you, they trust your ideas. Trust is foundational to creating an authentic culture.
In my 28 year career in corporate communications and training, culture initiatives were usually just marketing campaigns in disguise. That’s fine if you’re a marketing company, but if you’re genuinely interested in building culture, it’s not going to happen by slapping a pretty poster on the wall and telling everyone your new employee brand slogan.
Culture happens whether you’re intentional or not. If you are not intentional about culture, the message you’re sending to your team is, “Make what you will of being here.” If you think that sounds like a bad strategy, here are 5 things you can start doing to build an authentic culture.
One: Make eye contact when you talk to team members
Eye contact is the EASIEST thing you can do to show people you are present for the conversation. Focus on making eye contact and your brain won’t be floating around to other topics. PRO TIP: If eye contact makes you feel uncomfortable (#teamintrovert! I’m looking at you) look at the bridge of a person’s nose instead. To the receiver, it will look like eye contact, anyway.
Two: Ask questions about life first and work second
We’re all about the work, right? You can’t be. No one can be. People will work harder for you when they feel appreciated. Asking someone about their life — from how they’re doing, what grades their kids are in, what kinds of pets they have, how they spent their last vacation — and engaging in that conversation with them will reap tremendous rewards for you as a leader. And you might make new friends.
Three: Share your vulnerabilities and ask for help
If you’re Gen X, showing that you don’t know something can make your alarm bells go off. I highly recommend Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart to help get over this. It’s okay to go to your team with a request to have them help you figure something out, and it’s also okay to utter the words, “I don’t know.” When you bring people to your table and ask them to help you, it can build a thriving culture where asking for help is embraced. (Trust me, you want this)
Four: “Yes, and” new ideas
Don’t shoot down any new ideas. Accept ideas with an enthusiastic “Yes, and” as a basis of your rules for brainstorming. When someone proposes a new idea, like “what if we gave everyone a floating holiday of their choice off?” you could follow with, “Yes, and we could give them a holiday to volunteer at the organization they love.” Followed by, “Yes, and we could label it as Founder’s Floating Day Off, so that we could promote the idea that great inspiration comes from taking breaks.” You get the gist. Give “Yes, but” or “No” the day off.
Five: Launch “Ask Me Anything”
This can be on the platform of your choice: in person, on internal channels, or social media accounts like Instagram or Facebook. Go where your audience lives. You want to be in a place where you’ll reach as many of them as possible. You can solicit for questions ahead of time. My recommendation is soliciting questions the next level down from your direct reports. What do they want to know about you, the company, or anything you’re open to? Set your boundaries — if someone asks a question that’s outside your comfort zone, you don’t have to answer it. You can reply with, “Thanks so much for your question. While it’s outside the boundaries of what I am comfortable sharing about my life, I can tell you…”. Kick off the first session with, “The Top 5 Things You’d Learn about Me if We Were Seated Together at a Dinner.” If you have a distributed team, you can release a new video on a consistent schedule, and if you’re doing them in person, e.g., a town hall, you can have an open mic for on-the-spot questions. Why do all this? You’ll get an early glimpse into the things your team needs from you. When you know what they want, you can deliver.
Christine Wilcox is the principal at Mosaic Creative Services LLC.