Brief from Roundtable: How to empower employees to own and demonstrate the best of your culture

JR - The ballerina jumping in containers, Le Havre, 2014

JR - The ballerina jumping in containers, Le Havre, 2014

Reflections at a recent roundtable: How to empower employees to own and demonstrate the best of your culture

Last month I had the opportunity to sit at the table with leading culture, communications and change professionals in London. I was enlightened by our conversation and awe-struck by the similarities in challenges and ideas we had, despite the stark differences in the organizations we work in.

Professionals leading strategy for culture and environment gathered around a table, laid out with sandwiches and wine on top, and discussion on food for thought on the topic. Despite the differences in industries represented, there were many challenges we all faced, and ideas that were proposed and could be applied to any or all of us. The main aspects highlighted below.

  PURPOSE IS THE CORE: There was a broad discussion emphasizing how purpose needs to be at the heart of culture. Having a vision, mission and values on posters around the office were dismissed as superficial. Encouraging culture based on personal and organizational principles that resonate was advised. The challenge is “how”.

Values are hopeless unless they translate into beliefs. For us, we recently asked staff to their raise hand, if they knew what the purposes was, and almost everyone did. This wasn’t the case five years ago. We are now competing for millennials to join and they want a sense of purpose. Professional service-type companies, like ours, are struggling to recruit because everyone wants to go to Google, or the next big thing.
— Participant from PriceWaterhouseCoopers

SOLUTIONS-ORIENTED & PARTICIPATORY APPROACH: Google has a solution-focused culture that turns problems into a challenge to be solved. The “Googley” culture frowns upon complaining about issues, and promotes, and even rewards those who are working to problem-solve. One such group, called the Bureaucracy Busters, liaise with staff to review processes and find solutions to streamline them. The general feeling is that it is important to allow a balance of opinions and voices, without suffocating or repressing them. In some places, small volunteer groups organically come together and are encouraged by leadership, to work through an issue, or start an internal initiative. Most of the success is found in these “grassroots” initiatives which require minimal resources to succeed, demonstrating the power people and their will to transform a culture rather than fancy rollouts of internal campaigns or spending highly on something less authentic.  Finally, where annual staff survey participation is more high, say more than 90% at Google, then you know you are engagement because staff are responding and giving feedback. The challenge becomes how to address concerns. 

 LEADERSHIP & CRISIS MANAGEMENT: it was collectively agreed that the mouthpiece of the culture must be the CEO. Furthermore, leadership need to have a clear communication focus in their messaging and ensure consistency when combating organizational challenges. Another tip was to include culture performance markers for staff and teams, as well as recognize and acknowledge when individuals or groups are collaborating. Lastly, organizations may wish to continue to explore communications channels, given different staff receiver and digest information differently. For example, so places have a mix of staff in regions, with many in a lab, or factory or working in a field, who may not necessarily feel engaged through e-messages and campaigns. Another related aspect is crisis communication, that was briefly discussed. For example, at Google there was a walk out due to women’s discrimination action needed to be taken and promptly. In cases like this, it is important to react immediately and that ethics in culture and risk should be a consideration. Unfortunately this is often overlooked until something crucial happens. One example of an internal campaign launch, which was accelerated due to a crisis situation, was the 3 Respects. This was launched internally to combat feelings of disrespect, and were written in a way that allowed for discussion, and reflection; Respect the opportunity, Respect the user, Respect each other. It had tremendous success.

 In addition, leadership is encouraged to address issues, not just request feedback, but support ways to empower staff to find solutions. without fully addressing concerns, staff can become disheartened and  reluctant to participate and give feedback in the future.

We have many types of staff. For example we have factory workers that will never have a chance to open e-mails or engage on an e-platform, so we have to keep this in mind when we consider our outreach and feedback channels.
— Participant from Tate & Lyle PLC

 CULTURE MIRRORS BRANDING: Most national or global companies or organizations have an underlying culture that exists throughout all of the offices nationwide or worldwide, and inevitably each  location has their own local culture that is integrated into this. This main culture should be evaluated as a principal feature in the recruitment process. It was also noted and agreed that culture is not static. It is constantly changing and evolving, and a healthy culture should be fluid, taking the best forward, and reworking or dropping what’s not. You may not need a organizational internal culture “revolution”, but rather a stock take on what is really great and should be retained, and what needs to to be let go or added to make it better.

 There was resounding agreement from around the table that there is no difference with internal and external communications, especially due to the current landscape of  social media. Therefore, with respect to  communications, it was important to weave in “purpose” into messaging, and ideally include culture and values in all communications, written and spoken. For example, the way we exchange and debate on a topic, both at the office and at an event, may take an organizational approach.

 Who to invite to the table when designing the culture change- internal rebranding process:

· Non-desk sitting staff (unless everyone sits at one)

· Storytellers to highlight employees and partner/client stories

· Diverse and inclusive views

· Non-management representation

· Creative thinkers

Advice when leadership and staff are repelled by terms like “change management” or “culture change”? Recreate the concept and make it something that is more human, something that staff will want to latch onto. Strive to make it more about the way we do things around here rather than rigidly defining a culture.


(Book) The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath

(Blog article) Protect Your Investment in Innovation: Engage in Change Management (Link) 19 March 2019

(Blog article) How to build great company culture (Link) December 2018

SYP Partners: Tools (Link)


 This Roundtable was hosted by Corporate Culture. Corporate Culture is one of the UK’s leading employee engagement and culture change agencies. They provide strategic and creative expertise that helps companies deliver imaginative programmes and communications for employees and stakeholders. More at (Corporate Culture).