Building culture with purpose

When people are happy to come to work, everything about the workplace improves


By Jennifer Kirkland

Ask a group of leaders the question, “How’s your organizational culture?” and you’ll get a variety of answers ranging from “great!” to “terrible.” Most of these conversations will result in a comment about how culture is hard to define and almost impossible to manage.

Many leaders feel this way because culture is intangible. However, it’s an extremely important concept, and one that leaders should be deliberate in cultivating, because your culture touches every other aspect of your organization, and it can make or break your success. The good news is you and your people can have a direct effect on your culture. Some will say that a culture lives on its own and can’t be changed, but this is untrue. A leader can (and should!) deliberately build and nurture the desired culture.

An organization’s mission, vision and values (MVV) statement is an excellent place to start deliberately building culture.
An organization’s mission, vision and values (MVV) statement is an excellent place to start deliberately building culture. (Photo/Getty Images)

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) indicates, “An organization’s culture defines the proper way to behave within the organization. This culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors and understanding.” Many elements make up the overall culture, but four keys are:

  1. Mission, vision, and values
  2. Policy and procedure
  3. Behavioral norms and expectations
  4. Employee engagement

Mission, vision and values

An organization’s mission, vision and values (MVV) statement is an excellent place to start deliberately building culture. If your agency has a MVV statement that is stale or does not reflect current practices (or desired practices), it is time to refresh it. Involve your employees and stakeholders as much as possible to draft statements that truly reflect the organization. The values must be ones that the agency truly desires, not just words that look good on paper or the wall.

Once you are satisfied with the MVV statements, work to push those statements through everything the agency does. Use them to measure employee performance in evaluations, tie them to your employee rewards/awards, and use them to drive your decision-making process. If what’s being considered doesn’t serve the MVV, it gets thrown out or tweaked until it does. This is the foundation of building your culture.

Policy and procedure

Policy and procedure (P&P), and the way it is enforced, plays a large part in building organizational culture. When written thoughtfully and with a balanced approach between the agency’s needs and the employee’s needs, it is a useful tool and guidance for behavior at work. If these things are not present, the possibility to use P&P as a hammer or a weapon exists and will kill a positive culture.

Employees understand the need for policy and procedure; in fact, most employees welcome it because it provides them with a road map for the processes they need to carry out. Some P&P might be non-negotiable (wearing PPE when touching a patient), while others can have more leeway (use of personal devices while at the dispatch console).

When you write your P&P in such a way that it empowers the employee to take responsibility for their actions and to demonstrate competency, you are building a culture that values those things. In this way, P&P can be a powerful tool in building the culture you want. The key is to be deliberate about the end goal. Before you write (or revise) policy and procedure, think about the desired outcome, with an emphasis on how it will affect your organizational culture. Write your policies and procedures with that outcome in mind, and be sure to balance both the agency’s and employees’ needs.

Behavioral norms

In our Ambulance Service Manager and Communications Center Manager classes, the same question arises every session: “How do I deal with poor attitudes?” So many leaders believe they can’t do anything about negative people, because “attitude is just who they are.” It’s true that negativity can be difficult to rein in. However, the way someone behaves at work can, and should, be regulated. Taken together, employee behavior comprises a large part of what most people are referring to when they talk about organizational culture. When people behave well, your culture improves.

To approach this, work with your leadership team to establish your agency’s behavioral standards. This will look different for each agency, and should tie back to mission, vision and values.

Be specific: how will disagreements be handled? Who should an employee go to when they have a grievance? How will conflict between leaders be handled? What are specific examples of expected behavior? Be sure to involve your employees in this process.

Once the standards are agreed upon, ensure your supervisors are relentless about making sure people meet them. By relentless, I don’t mean disrespectful! If you tolerate it, you’re promoting it, so make sure that when unacceptable behavior is witnessed, it is addressed – every time! This process takes time and effort, but the payoff is well worth it. Over time, employees will see that behavioral standards are important and create a healthy work environment for all, and they will meet the standards.

Employee engagement

Employees who feel that their contributions are valued will build and sustain the momentum that other culture-building efforts have started. To increase employee engagement, listen to your employees and the ideas they bring forward. Those who are actively involved in doing the job usually have a strong sense of what it takes to do it well, and when they bring forward ideas, leadership should take them seriously. Make it a practice to say “yes” as much as you can, using your MVV as a decision-making guide and keeping in mind the end goal of a strong culture.

Be proactive in your leadership as well. Ask your employees what they need, or what they would like. Make it a point to find out what impedes them in doing a good job and remove those obstacles. Remember that it’s sometimes the little things that add up into big things over time, and then cause the culture to take a nose-dive. Frustrations over a CAD system that constantly goes down or field equipment that consistently breaks produce negative culture results. Be intentional about creating a great place to work, and employees will follow suit.

Culture changes take time and effort but are always worth it. When people are happy to come to work, everything about the workplace improves. Culture touches everyone, and it’s the leader’s job to build and cultivate it.

Read next: 3 factors to change a stubborn EMS culture

About the author

Jennifer Kirkland, ENP, CPE, is one of the lead facilitators of Fitch & Associates’ ASM and CCM development programs.  She also serves as the Director of 911 Center Manager, Grand Junction Regional Communication Center, Grand Junction, CO.   She has served in a variety of elected positions in state and national public safety communications organizations.  Contact her directly at jkirkland@fitchassoc.com

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