Telling employees they own culture is a bit like telling HR to think like business people.
Let me explain that, because it's fair to expect HR professionals – especially those with business partner in their title - to approach problems with a business lens. But here comes the ‘but.’
The business people who say HR should think like business people tend to earn a lot more and have a much higher stake in the business than an HR partner. So what, you ask?
Well, as a result, these ‘business people’ tend to be more focused on cost cutting measures to drive up share price and their own bonuses than investing in vague-sounding things like engagement. Unless, of course, it drives up EPS and is cheap to implement. Or better yet, free.*
*OMG – I just realized telling employees they own culture is free. Well, that’s that explained, then.
We could even argue HR folks are the best business thinkers in the company because they understand the importance of things that are difficult to measure, but that's not the kind of 'business thinking' that's meant.
While it’s true HR needs a business lens, few businesses hire ‘business people’ as HR business partners. Therefore, they shouldn’t be surprised most HR folks think and talk like… well, HR folks. If you want your HR business partner to think, act and talk like your Chief Revenue Officer, you’ll need to recruit, reward and design this role differently.
Note that HR business partners with amazing networking, business acumen and storytelling skills quickly graduate to higher paying pastures. That should tell you something.
Same deal with employees and culture. Do employees own culture? Certainly, everyone owns their own behaviour at work but let’s not forget the human tendency to observe others and imitate what works. If people seem to get ahead by hoarding information, taking credit for teamwork, spending more time socializing than doing actual work, or shooting down ideas, guess what behaviours will end up becoming the norm?
Whereas if toxic behaviour is promptly addressed, ideas are welcome, meaningful collaboration encouraged, teamwork rewarded, and helping others recognized a very different kind of culture will emerge.
I realize positive examples can inspire positive behaviours, even in a dark place, but bad behaviour tends to spread if unchecked. Inevitably, others follow suit, which encourages others to do the same because it seems to be how things are done.
In a place where no one can be trusted, only a fool trusts or is trustworthy.
So, who owns culture? Everyone in the organization participates in and has some accountability for culture but the ‘owners’ are the leaders and decision makers - the choice architects - who set the behavioural example; design roles and incentives; decide who to hire and promote; and determine which behaviours to accept and encourage.
Making employees responsible for culture isn’t great leadership, it’s lack of leadership.
Interested in learning more about how design thinking can be used to create a better company culture and work experience?
Here are some resources to get started: