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6 Ways to Change Your Work Culture

Jane Sarles Larson

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What do Uber, Yahoo and Amazon all have in common? They are all highly successful companies who have connected people and revenue sharing to incredible heights. You might expect that companies excelling at connecting people would have strong, positive organizational cultures that propelled them in the marketplace. Not so.

Uber’s “frat culture” eventually forced their leadership to reconsider and rebuild their culture after harassment allegations were made. Amazon’s workers are “encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings” and are held to “unreasonably high standards.”

It's fundamentally really hard to change company culture—but you can enhance its best characteristics,” says Marissa Mayer, former Yahoo CEO. “You have to repeat your mission, and your purpose, and the values you care about, over and over and over.”

A culture transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Behaviors and patterns are embedded deeply in people and change takes time. Moving your employees towards the vision you have requires an understanding of what motivates people to change.

The problem is people don’t often understand how what they do fits into the organizational mission and vision.

Companies can't underestimate the motivational drivers of their employees. This is an opportunity to transform a culture from “business as usual” into a thriving, innovative company that can meet—and even exceed—corporate financial goals.

Here are six insights you can use to change your work culture.

  1. Understand motivation theory. Human beings are complex and can’t be motivated with a one-size-fits-all solution. Treating people like “rats in a maze” where everyone is given the same incentive for achieving various tasks may have worked a hundred years ago, but the workplace today is far more multifarious. Finding the right blend of motivators that appeal to and move your employees or channel partners is a complicated business. However, done right, it can change your competitive landscape significantly. At ITA Group, we call this the science of motivation, or Motivology®. It’s the intentional and experienced blending of intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivators to maximize people's performance. Companies should do an assessment with leadership and employee focus groups to learn how people are motivated and what could be done to appeal to those motivators better. You can't change your culture before knowing exactly what needs to be changed.
  2. Provide intrinsic motivators to your employees. In his book, Payoff. The Hidden Logic that Shapes Our Motivations, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely shows us how understanding intrinsic motivators that shape human behavior can “get to the heart of motivation.” He posits that motivation is driven by having a connection to an organization and feeling that you're involved in meaningful work—even if it’s challenging or painful. Research attests that meaningful work might not necessarily make someone happy, but it can give a person a sense of “purpose, value and impact—of being involved in something bigger than themselves.” Ariely goes on to say that, “We’re motivated by meaning and connection because their effects extend beyond ourselves, beyond our social circle, and maybe even beyond our existence.”
  3. Don't forget the extrinsic motivators. Because motivation is so vast and individualized, through the study of human behavior, we can come to understand the importance of external motivators such as salaries, bonuses, tangible awards, etc. In an experiment conducted by Ariely with four groups of Intel employees, an incentive was offered to see which one would be more motivating. With one control group (who received no incentive), the incentives for the other groups included money, pizza vouchers and compliments. Cash performed the worst. The compliment incentive resulted in the highest performance with the pizza voucher falling somewhere in between. It should be noted that the effect of the incentives was not long lasting. This is why it’s important to offer a blend of motivators to raise performance and engagement levels. “The more a company can offer employees an opportunity for meaning and connections, the harder those employees are likely to work and the more enduring their loyalty is likely to be,” says Ariely.
  4. Create intentional connectedness. Managers can help increase connectedness and loyalty by creating a culture that demonstrates its commitment to employees. Offering long-term investments in employees such as education, training, health benefits, career pathing and professional development, as well as investing in their wellbeing and personal growth, will have a positive and long-lasting impact. Creating a culture of recognition, trust and goodwill results in higher engagement and the feeling of autonomy for employees—and ultimately, connectedness to the organization.
  5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. People need to understand how they fit into an organization’s goals and objectives. Communicating your company’s mission and vision during new hire on-boarding and once a year at your annual meeting isn’t enough. Start by developing a campaign to employees that reinforces your messaging and expectations throughout the year. Help them understand how each of their roles and responsibilities support the ideals of the company.
  6. Reward and recognize preferred behaviors. Recognizing star performers promotes role models for others to emulate. But don’t forget about those people who are taking steps to support the overall mission and priorities within their roles. People need to be recognized for a job well done while having a sense of ownership and accomplishment. People want meaningful work that contributes value to the goals of the organization. They will work harder if they have it—and are recognized for it.

Every behavior, no matter how complex, is malleable. Group or team dynamics, organizational crisis or life-changing events present opportunities for transformation. People must first decide to make changes and then believe it’s possible to control change.

Your organization’s culture empowers your people to connect with your mission and vision to drive bottom-line results. And it positions you for overall workplace excellence.


“Bring your whole self to work. It means we acknowledge, it means we are there for each other, we are flexible with what people need, and then we can form the relationships that create that collective resilience.” —Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

Jane Sarles Larson's picture

Jane Sarles Larson

As the Research Manager for ITA Group’s Marketing Strategy, Jane is on the forefront of market research and thought leadership. Her interest in neuroscience and how it applies to human behavior and engagement has led to the development of ITA Group’s approach to motivation called Motivology. Her 30+ years of international advertising, sales and marketing experience is second only to her knowledge of dark chocolate.

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