Want to change company culture? Start by changing communications.
There is a lot of research in the field of dynamic social impact theory (Conway Schaller 2007, Latané, 1996) that argues that
not only is communication a necessary feature of culture, but communication by itself is sufficient to account for the emergence of culture.
Put simply, how you communicate as an organisation determines your organisation’s culture. If you’re dissatisfied with any aspect of your organisation's culture, reviewing and changing your communication approach is a good place to start.
Below is a matrix of how different communication approaches tangibly impact culture and actionable changes you can make to change culture through communications.
How codified are your comms?
I’ve found that organisations that have a codified (i.e. agreed method) of communicating are usually more efficient and connected as their teams spend less time searching for information that may or may not exist, or working off information that is no longer relevant. A somewhat outdated 2012 study from McKinsey stated that knowledge workers spent 19% of their work week searching for and gathering information - this phenomenon they said could be vastly improved by the use of “social technologies”. Fast forward 9 years and with most of us drowning in a sea of collaboration tools, having a codified approach to communication, not only helps create efficiencies (I know where to find X, and how to inform people about Y), it also helps create a sense of identity and belonging, which underpins culture. If you want to create a strong culture that helps bond people together towards a common goal, then not only does your communication approach have to be codified i.e. low friction, it also needs to be distinct i.e. this is how we as company Xers communicate (there’s a reason why all those secret-societies create complex handshakes to greet each other...) A great example of this is Stripe. They have a well defined writing culture that helps them live their operating principle of rigorous thinking.
Is synchronous better than asynchronous?
There is no right answer to this question and it largely depends on the context. If most of the decisions made in your organisation, whether large or small, are done so through synchronous means (meetings, phone calls, slack messages etc), chances are most of these decisions are being made quickly(ish) and without much rigorous thought, unless they’ve been accompanied by asynchronous materials (memos, emails, Looms etc). This can be a good thing when it comes to type 2 (reversible) decisions that have a small-mid sized impact, particularly in industries where speed is a particular competitive advantage (most startups). If most of your decisions take place via asynchronous mediums then it’s likely they are well thought out, but slow(ish) to form. This is particularly beneficial when it comes to making decisions that have a significant and/or long term impact (company strategy, hiring a senior role) where lack of due diligence can ultimately cost an organisation a loss of velocity and money.
If you think your organisation’s culture lacks depth of thought, introduce asynchronous communication methods as the norm for certain types of decisions and updates. If you feel your company moves too slowly, remove the blockers (hint: a good place to start is with that weekly team meeting slide deck that people spend hours updating to present the decision they’re going to make post-meeting instead of actually just taking immediate action and moving forward with a low-risk decision…)
What is the purpose of most of your company’s communications?
If you find yourself wondering why someone is being very vocal about something relatively minor on a very public forum (e.g. a small progress update, everyone sending weekly “what I did email” sent to team@) then chances are you’re operating in a culture than values visibility over delivery, which is 99% of corporate cultures. Any ambitious individual will know that hard work alone isn’t enough to get ahead in an organization, however, if you’re a leader of an organisation that finds yourself on the receiving end of a lot of meaningless FYI updates, there is a possibility that your reward cycle is valuing perception instead of impact. That is bad news for business as it’s likely your team are focused are spending less time completing work than shouting about it. This can lead to a culture prioritizes work that has little impact and lacks follow through on work that delivers long term results once the dust has settled (e.g. shipping new shiny features, writing a high volume of low quality blog posts than gain minimal traction). To mitigate the negative aspects of this trend, highlight actual impactful work and especially the unglamorous ones (that bug didn’t fix itself). To create a culture of shipping impact, move towards a model that rewards the invisible and mundane and yet important work, not just the high profile ones.
How much should you share internally?
This again is another “it depends” answer. Personally I believe in defaulting to internally sharing as much information as possible e.g posting meeting notes on slack, listing decisions on Notion. Overall, I think that sharing content and context leads to open and collaborative cultures that as a whole lead to more pleasant, less toxic work environments. However, there are cases where this may not be possible (M&A, finance, HR and other functions can be prevented from sharing updates due to legal reasons). In those cases I recommend practicing a culture of public sharing within a closed group, as it creates these benefits on a team level where it is not possible to do so at an organisational level. While generally I believe that open communication flows lead to more innovation there are companies that disprove this rule. Apple is a notoriously siloed company where new products are kept secret and yet it is one of the most innovative companies on the planet.
How honest should your comms be?
Even in the world’s most locked down, private comms cultures, some updates need to be shared. Decisions will be made, whether it’s about the reasoning behind a strategic direction or letting someone go, and things will not go according to plan e.g. sales being behind on forecast, products not reasonating with customers. How transparent you choose to be in communicating these to your team is a reflection of your culture. If you're transparent in communication, both in good times and in bad, you likely have a high trust culture. Trust is the foundation of high performing teams. If you as a leader find yourself surround by underperforming teams there is a possibility that there is a lack of mutual trust (both upwards, downwards and sideways) within teams, that is being driven by hidden truths (i.e. lying) or being a company that shares highly curated internal content (always spinning the bad news so it sounds not so bad). There may also be a lack of context sharing in the business that prevents people from understanding why decisions are being made in a certain way. Without this understanding, teams cease to be able to be autonomous or to work in alignment towards a shared mission. To reverse these negative aspects, start by being more transparent in your everyday comms. Share (overcommunicate) decision-making reasoning, good news, bad news and the why behind everything. People like being treated like adults and by doing this you’ll likely start to see your teams take more initiative.
Writing takes longer than speaking, is it worth the effort?
Generally, I would say yes. Organisations that document communications (Gong recordings of sales meetings, sharing meeting notes on Slack) create reference points that both aid with context sharing (enabling people to take informed actions) and also having the added benefit of holding people accountable (actions speak louder than words and written actions have a 100000% increased probability of being completed). If you’re worried about a lack of accountability or forward momentum in your culture, start documenting notes and actions, and referencing them consistently (e.g. start each meeting by recapping outstanding actions from the previous one). You’ll likely see an increase in progress with each check-in.
There is no one size fits all company culture, however, if you aren’t satisfied with some aspects of your organisational cultural practices, then start by reviewing your communications approach. Deliberately shifting your company’s communication norms from left to right or right to left in the matrix above will change your culture. The key to maintaining it is in its consistency.