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The top mistakes companies make when building workplace culture

8 min read

09 August 2019

We asked the experts where companies go wrong building workplace culture. These are the top mistakes SMEs make with company culture and how to avoid them.

Recently, in association with essential HR software company Breathe, we interviewed our very own panel of workplace culture experts to find out what impressive company cultures have in common.

While we were at it, we took the chance to ask our culture aficionados where companies get it wrong. Why? Well, to help small businesses avoid such pitfalls in the future. Because however good our intentions, our planning and our execution, we don’t always get things right. And building organisational culture is no exception.

What, then, are the top mistakes for companies to avoid when building workplace culture?

1. Copying other companies

Businesses are complex things. Whether or not you have a good understanding of your SME’s culture, any changes you decide to make should be for the right reasons.

“Company culture is completely unique to each organisation,” says Victoria Usher, founder and CEO at GingerMay, “which is why it’s essential to use data compiled anonymously to understand what your employees value and what motivates them within your organisation.”

This is precisely why you should base decisions around culture on the needs of your employees and your company, with external factors as a secondary influence.

What are the top mistakes for SMEs to avoid when building workplace culture?

Implement changes to culture based on what’s right for your company, not others.

“Never jump on the bandwagon for trends,” says Usher. “Unlimited holiday might be right for the employees of your competitors, but your employees might prefer more investment in training or career progression.”

It is an opinion that Joe Wiggins, director of PR at Glassdoor, Europe, shares. As he puts it:

“Don’t act until you know what you stand for. Don’t be tempted to copy other companies and assume that what works elsewhere will work for you.”

2. Imposing culture on your business

It’s one thing not to copy other companies. It’s quite another to do something that’s completely unique to your business. As such, there are many ways to go about building or changing company culture. If you need some inspiration, see how the Top 25 SME Culture Leaders of 2019 have gone about it.

“One thing not to do is get a bunch of senior managers in a room and then walk out with ‘this is our culture, now adopt it’because that’s not going to work,” says Alessandro Valentini, marketing director at GrantTree.

What mistakes do companies make when building workplace culture?

Imposing culture on your employees can be counterproductive.

He continues, “The most important thing is to approach company culture collaboratively:”

 “If you really want people to engage with your values, you need to get to those values together.”

“This is something that I’ve seen in very successful companies culture-wise. It’s one of the main things that makes those companies stand out. They approach culture collaboratively, as a team together,” Valentini concludes.

3. Focusing on problems

When I ask Chris Dyer, author and founder of PeopleG2, what companies get wrong when building workplace culture, his response initially sounds counter-intuitive: “Problem solving!”

Of course, when he goes into more detail, the wisdom behind Dyer’s answer quickly becomes clear.

Positive cultures focus on what is working, on how to do more where they are succeeding, and on remembering to evaluate how they can improve,” he says. “That mindset is different to running around problem solving or focusing on what is wrong, what failed or what is not your core competency.”

4. Giving up too soon

No pain, no gain. That’s the message from David Lewis, CEO of Scottish agency Lewis, who cautions SMEs against being deterred by failure:

“Be prepared for setbacks and knockbacks. Great culture isn’t gained in one day with a few quick wins.”

Culture itself, however, is born on day one of your company’s existence, says Lewis, before he moves on to an analogy. “Like an employee, you’ve got to do the hard work with culture to ensure it’s going in the right direction, has enough fuel in the tank and, remember, there will be ups and downs in the road.” He has one final piece of advice for SMEs:

“Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”

Where SMEs go wrong building workplace culture

Keep going: “Be prepared for setbacks and knockbacks,” says David Lewis.

5. Thinking you’ve finished

Another message that comes through loud and clear from the SME Culture Leader judges is that company culture is never a finished product.

“You don’t ‘do’ culture and then move on to do something else,” says entrepreneur, angel investor and speaker John Stapleton.

Resting on your laurels really isn’t an option here. As Lewis puts it, “The number one item to avoid is thinking that you’ve achieved the end goal. Culture, very much like cash in your business, can quickly and very easily run out.”

Can you take your eye off the ball for a second? Apparently not.

“You’re never going to reach the point where you can stop thinking about culture,” Valentini adds. Like work, culture never stops:

“Culture as human relations is a dynamic reality. You have to put in the effort and you have to commit to it, well, forever.”

6. Doing a half-baked job

“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that perks build a positive culture,” says Glassdoor’s Joe Wiggins. If you’re going to do something, do it properly.

Indeed, it’s vital to address culture in its entirety. “Culture starts before you enter the business,” says John Stapleton. “Having a good balance between theory and practice is really important.” He doesn’t mince his words:

“You can’t just pay lip service to culture because if you do it will be really obvious.”

Build a great workplace culture

If you’re going to do something, do it properly. That’s why Breathe has launched its Company Culture Pledge, which over 400 companies have signed up to already. 

The HR software company is on a mission to spread the word about great workplace culture and encourage SMEs across the UK to invest in theirs.

Here’s Breathe CEO Jonathan Richards explaining what the pledge is and why you should sign it.