Five Fundamental Traits of an HR Culture Catalyst

By Amelia Chan, CPHR

Every organization has a personality or culture. Whether it is intentional or not, the employees have a way of doing things which ultimately defines the organization—it is how “we roll.”

What is interesting about modern management practice is that the examination of strategy is a mainstay in work terminology and mindset while discussions about culture are just emerging. Understandably, strategy is key “to change”, but understanding that culture is what allows or prevents that change has become increasingly obvious.

Culture is alive, always evolving and must be nurtured. Popular management thinking has often expressed that culture eats strategy for lunch. Intrinsically, this makes sense as culture exists from the start—it is through this lens or upon this foundation that the success of strategy is predicated.

As organization leaders become more ‘people-first’ in their decision making, we are seeing a more holistic approach to business. The profitability of committing to culture, apart from the ‘coolness’ factor, has progressive leaders paying increasing attention to the ties between their ‘people experience,’ performance and productivity.

The People Make it Happen
Culture is comprised of people and, as such, within an organization it can be a moving target with new hires, terminations and transfers. It also means different things throughout an organization and can change over time due to internal actions, inactions and/or reactions.

A culture change or shift can be difficult to effect when expectations are unrealistically high or there is no alignment between strategy and capabilities within the business. High performance leadership understands that behaviours shape their organization. Not only do managers need to lead by example, they must also inspire and influence similar behaviour in their direct reports to lead successfully.

This has a domino effect and there are scalability aspects to consider. When it comes to organizational change and transformation, strategy, capability and culture must be examined together. While most strategies have specific objectives and timelines, capabilities don’t always fit neatly into those parameters and the culture is woven throughout. As a result, culture cannot be diagnosed, managed or treated in isolation.

Five Culture Catalyst Must-Haves
The value of the HR professional lies within our ability to advise, coach and mentor within the business; this is truly serving as a culture catalyst. An effective HR business partner helps the decision makers understand where the people risks and opportunities lie. Here are five fundamentals for fostering positive workplace culture:

Curiosity: Change can be perceived as threatening or overwhelming. Leading with curiosity keeps the lines of communication open. Before anything is introduced, leaders must understand what the existing behaviours are and more importantly, why they exist as they do. The evolution and history of how a process or procedure comes to be is vital. Whether it is as simple as a new team member who creates a shift in duties and responsibilities or perhaps a bold new approach to doing business, employees can be overwhelmed. Understanding and communicating the “why” brings employees together and increases collective ownership.

Communication: Initiative, objectivity and activity can all come to naught without daily communication throughout an organization. Executives and stakeholders who have grand plans but only lead with big ideas and limited follow through will struggle with the ground level “buy-in” of the staff. Communications keep the big picture front of mind for all, giving purpose and perspective to daily matters of due diligence. By forging psychological links between organizational and individual goals, engagement and retention is enhanced. Moreover, fostering a culture of communications provides a continuous feedback loop for improvement.

Credibility: Authenticity and integrity define the path to success. Understanding the business is the underlying requirement for professional credibility, but ensuring that credibility is modelled throughout, particularly from leadership and management, is key to culture. This requires consistency of behaviours, reliability with following through on commitments, and accountability for missteps. This is earned authority which wins the hearts and loyalty of the people. Without it, culture and productivity alike suffer.

Commitment: Coupled with patience, commitment is the active determination to stay focused despite obstacles. Showing that you are willing to ‘go the ropes’ for someone or something you believe in goes a long way in workplace culture building. Getting knocked down and continuing to get back up to handle the next hurdle is how culture gains positive traction. Building a committed workforce takes the continuous improvement mindset to a whole other level because it focuses on the mutual and long-term relationship between the company and employee. Committed employees who feel trusted to use discretion will strive harder to endorse business objectives.

Agility: When things are going as planned, it is easy to operate and manage. However, in times of uncertainty, change and disruption, it is challenging for leadership to keep the focus on the bigger picture or provide any leeway for progress. Having the fundamentals down is essential, but without flexibility, companies won’t get far. Employing flexibility as part of daily practice encourages employee engagement to thrive. With disruption in the work world becoming the new normal, HR agility encourages employees to shine on the strength of company culture.

HR Guardians and Mirrors
As the guardians of the people processes, human resources has an important foundational role. While senior leaders may attempt to define corporate culture, it is HR that provides the feedback on what’s working, how to connect with the employees and what needs to be adjusted to be effective. Even though executive leadership sets the vision, they may not be as tapped into the day-to-day operational activities.

As per a recent Bersin by Deloitte article, “Leadership sets the tone and direction of a corporate culture, but HR could be the mirror for our leaders and help them see both the positive and negative elements of their decisions and behaviours.”

When aligned with leadership’s vision and actions, human resources has the ability to elevate the organization; the HR value proposition, embodied in the organization’s people, radiates outward in support of business goals.

After all, as HR professionals, we are first to the gate to welcome the talent and set the tone of their employment experience. As such we are already ambassadors, but in stepping into our role as culture catalysts, we take ownership of our profession’s influence—and our organizational futures. From the front line to the CEO, HR can impact culture unlike any other profession. It takes work and it is not HR’s work alone, but pursuing a culture which puts people practices at the forefront is not only “cool”—it’s catalytic!

Amelia Chan, CPHR, RCIC is founder and principal consultant of Higher Options Consulting Services, providing a wide range of HR and immigration services for small to mid-sized businesses. She is a member of CPHR BC & Yukon.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2017)

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