Blog post by Mark Ellis: Culture Gobbledegook 

The following blog post is written by Mark Ellis of Culture Transform and was originally posted here.

Culture Gobbledegook

A friend asked me recently to help out his son – he’s in the first year of his Computer Science degree at Cardiff University and was handed the following assignment,

“Describe some of the key ways in which managers can try to control the culture of their organisations to enhance performance?”

I was delighted to see that the educational establishments are taking the question of culture seriously – flattered to be asked for help and was half way through a response before I realised I was talking gobbledegook to an 18 year old.

I deleted it all, and started again – but it made me realise how big the temptation is to revert to corporate BS speak sometimes (and I really do try and avoid it at all costs).

Problem was that I reverted back to academia – where through rose coloured spectacles I diligently studied for four years and never touched a drop of drink….But I do remember hated the confusing language some of my tutors used – it seemed designed to make us look dumb.

So by way of answering this question for anyone relatively new to culture – here’s my response. I would be delighted to get more input on this – the student in question is following these blogs and you’ll be helping him too :-)


Hi Mark, I have to do a presentation on the following question: “Describe some of the key ways in which managers can try to control the culture of their organisations to enhance performance?”.

I’ve found loads of influencers on culture but I don’t know how managers can use it to enhance performance.

No problem at all, happy to help and also to see that these kinds of questions are being asked of you :-)

Most people join companies for the job, and the salary – but they stay there because of the culture. Deep down, most of us want to be part of a group that have the same belief systems and passions – and financial rewards (whilst being necessary), don’t actually make us either loyal or happy in the long term – but it certainly does help!

There’s no such thing as a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ culture. If you’re in the technology field – you may want to work for Apple, but not for Microsoft. For Google, but not Facebook. Twitter not Oracle. A big part of that is how you think about their culture.

The younger you are, the more that will influence how long you stay, and how well you work when you join an organisation. There’s a good blog from my friend Peter McKelvie on different styles of management for Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y etc. here….

One of the biggest influencers of culture is how well you can engage your employees. This means assuming that people are smart, motivated and can contribute great ideas and good work to your company – and then trying to create an environment where they feel good about doing all those things.

The opposite of an engaged culture is one where managers tell employees what to do all the time, and don’t listen.

Before you ask about ways to ‘control’ culture, you have to understand why people would want to. Almost all businesses want to do this in order to save money or make money. The biggest savings come from reducing voluntary attrition (staff turnover where people just hand in their resignation). The biggest benefit comes from attracting the best people, and then getting the most from them.

So – the question is about key ways to control the culture.

1. The closest influencers that people have are their manager and their peers. If you want a consistent culture then make sure your managers are appropriately trained – this will be different in the Navy Seals that it would be in a Starbucks, or in the IT Department of Ford, or in kitchens of a hotel. The trick is making sure that your manager training fits the culture you already have, or the culture that the company aspires too. If you have five mangers that sit down with their staff over lunch everyday and listen to their ideas – and one who sits behind a closed door and yells at everyone to work harder, then you’re going to have performance issues in the latter team.

2. Measure employees perceptions of their managers. Most companies have a clear vision and values statement – they could be expected behaviours, or core values, a strategic vision or a mission statement. When you join a company, you expect to be working towards this common goal. So measure how close to the behaviours on the wall each of your managers is seen to act. Asking, and then sharing the results keeps people motivated to share further information – but make sure that whatever the feedback is, employees are never punished for being honest. Nothing kills culture faster.

3. Act on employee suggestions – a manager who asks for help, ideas or advice from their team and then does nothing with it will never get anything of value from their team. If you are asked “how would you do this better” and nobody listens, why would you answer the question next time?

4. The CEO of Netflix once said “Don’t tolerate brilliant jerks” – he meant that sometimes in your teams the best performers can be rule breakers that pay no attention to culture and annoy those around them (whilst typically getting away with this behaviour). Another key role for a manager is to remove these people from the company. Whilst there is a place in all teams for occasional heroics, if you have people that consistently annoy others they will drive their teammates to leave the company, and send a message that the ‘values’ are just words. This will cost you far more than keeping the bad influence.

5. Keep your people happy. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t. You can look up “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” and see a bunch of research on this – but the higher up that triangle you can get your staff, the better they will perform, and the better your company will do. (Click here for a modern take on it from the Huffington Post, maybe easier to digest if you’re presenting to an audience ). Any way managers can support this, will effectively control the culture in the organisation.

6. Measure the culture, and measure it’s effects. The smartest companies measure success of these things – so you can come up with a bunch of ways to control culture, but unless you know which ones work it’s all pointless. You can do this by looking at employee engagement levels, looking at the results from point 2 above, or analysing where the highest employee turnover is. By measuring it, and talking to employees about it – the whole thing becomes more ‘serious’ and is likely to drive people towards the right cultural behaviours…….of course, acting on what you measure is critical. There’s some detail about engagement measurement here from a prior blog if you want to take a look.

7. Get the hiring process right – make sure that you explain to people at interview what the culture of the company is. If possible, give them a quick test to check they fit. Getting control of cultural influence this early is good management practice – and WILL reduce early attrition.

I’ll finish up with an example for you. I went to see a company a few weeks ago that was losing a lot of money because people kept leaving. They’d hire them, and then over one third would leave within the first six months. That was a change, two years before only 1 in 30 new hires would do the same.

The hiring policy within the company had changed, and they were employing a high proportion of both recent university graduates and school leavers. These people were being put into teams under managers that measured everything, gave out tasks regularly – but also DID listen to the ideas from them. But still they were leaving.

Several reasons emerged, firstly the management team blocked all social media from the computers – no Facebook, Twitter, Google+ (of course all the new hires were just taking their smartphones to the toilets instead). The teams were also scattered into various offices within five miles of head office – and the way it had been done meant that some teams felt very distant and undervalued. When younger employees came on board, they were managed by numbers (literally with a huge public whiteboard) & told what to do.

The managers believed they were listening (and they were), but they were not doing anything about it – not changing policy, or explaining why they did it – and the work environment was not explained during the interview process. So 1 in 3 were leaving because the culture of the role wasn’t as promised.

This is an example of a culture being controlled by management, but certainly not to enhance performance – the opposite was true, and it’s easy to see how to fix it. Many times cultures need to change over time to support growth of the company or the financial goals.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to get the latest news, events, podcasts and more!