Building a Strong Small Business Culture Without a Corporate Budget

BY: ON SATURDAY, JULY 20, 2019

Every organization needs a strong company culture. One poll showed that 88% of employees feel the right company culture is essential to their long-term career success. However, many small business owners neglect to develop it.

What comes to mind when somebody refers to a “company culture?” Most people immediately imagine worker bees milling around in a major corporation, such as Google or Starbucks. They rarely think about the importance of company culture in small businesses. Even many small business owners overlook the reality of the company cultures they have helped construct every day.

Major corporations have played an important role in helping us understand the importance of company cultures. Southwest Airlines is one of the best examples that comes to mind. In an industry known for subpar customer service, this company has always stood out as the cream of the crop. The reason it has excelled is that management helped nurture a company culture around hospitality and empowerment of employees.

Most business school case studies center around companies like Southwest Airlines. These case studies give the impression that corporations are better equipped to develop a strong company culture than small business owners. However, the emphasis on using corporations as models of successful architects of company cultures is mostly due to the fact that the average MBA program is primarily geared towards preparing students for a career as corporate ladder climbers, rather than entrepreneurs.

While small businesses may not earn the same recognition for building strong company cultures, many of them have cultures that could serve as wonderful models for other businesses. They may not have the resources of a Fortune 500 company, but they have other advantages that come into play. A closely-knit family of employees can easily have much stronger bonds than a building filled to the brim with overpaid corporate drones.

How do you small businesses build impressive company cultures?

Some small businesses worry that they can’t build a strong company culture without a huge budget to pay for their employees to receive exorbitant salaries and benefits packages. This is a massive misconception and a copout. Countless studies have shown that you can’t lift employee satisfaction or loyalty with financial incentives. You need to think carefully about the company culture that you want to instill and have a consistent plan in place to achieve it.

Here are some of the best practices to build a company culture.

Outline the core values that you want to emphasize

Your company culture is going to emerge one way or the other. The question is whether it is going to be the company culture that you are looking for.

As the old adage says, “If you don’t know where you are going, you won’t know how to get there.” This tidbit of wisdom could not be truer for business owners that are striving to create a strong and vibrant company culture. Without identifying the values that you want your company to live by, you won’t be able to set a framework for your employees to follow. They will build a company culture of their own without your input and you might not like the outcome.

You are going to need to make a list of the most important principles of your organization. Keep in mind that you aren’t omnipotent as a business owner. You aren’t going to be able to perfectly shape the culture to your liking. Therefore, you are going to need to develop a relatively broad set of values to focus on.

There is no universally correct set of company values. The nature of your business, the types of employees that you intend to attract, the presence of any social missions, the background of the founders and demographics of your customers are all going to affect the set of values that will be most ideal for your company. Some common examples of company values include:

  • A workplace that is tirelessly dedicated to maximizing customer satisfaction. Companies like Southwest Airlines built their company culture around the premise that employees should be given the flexibility to take initiative to help the customer at all reasonable costs. Their customer service models would not be nearly as strong without a company culture that emphasizes this philosophy.
  • Some companies believe in keeping things as low-key as possible. They live by the principle of working hard and playing hard.
  • Companies with a strong social mission build a holistic culture around friendliness, transparency and open dialogue. They encourage employees to standby these principles while engaging with people both inside and outside the organization.

The nuances of your company culture won’t be set in stone. However, there should be a set of clear values that serve as their foundation.

Tell an evolving story about your company

Storytelling is an art that can work wonders in many organizations. A well-crafted story can go a long way towards building the company culture. However, it needs to be done well.

Organizational behavior experts often suggest that companies create a list of stories about the founders to help build a strong company culture. The stories are supposed to emphasize times when the founders overcame and obstacle.

This can be a good idea in principle. However, businesses that focus exclusively on empowering stories about the founders are likely to miss the mark. First of all, this could easily come across as a vanity if the founders are the ones telling the story. More importantly, it this is the entire point of building a company culture. The company culture is supposed to unify every employee in the organization. Stories that revolve entirely around the founder are going to leave everybody else out of the equation. They could feel unappreciated for their own contributions, which may eventually surpass those of the founders.

You can tell stories about the founders around the time the company first opens its doors. However, as the company grows, new stories should be added to the mix. Stories about the founder should become less important, as the contributions of other employees begin to add up. You should tell more stories about other employees that have made impressive contributions and set examples around the company values.

Consider encouraging (not forcing) employee social interaction

One way to foster a strong company culture is to facilitate social relationships between employees outside of work. A major marketing agency that I used a contract for had regular bowling nights and other events for employees to participate in. Many other workplaces encourage employees to go out for drinks after work.

As the owner of the company, you can try to encourage these types of relationships. However, some managers push too hard to force relationships outside of work. Here are some reasons that this can be a mistake:

  • Some employees are more introverted or less likely to enjoy certain activities. They might be resentful of the company if they feel that they are being pressured into doing something they are not comfortable with.
  • Some employees may like their colleagues, but they get tired of spending so much time with them during working hours. They want to seek a balance by building stronger relationships with friends and family members when they are off the clock.
  • Some employees might feel that the expectation of being friends with their coworkers outside of work implies that there is an expectation to open up more about their personal life. This could be uncomfortable for people that have insecurities that they would like to keep close to the vest or are worried that their behavior outside the workplace could hurt their reputation at work.

These situations could lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and resentment. As a result, managers that push too hard to build internal social connections that transcend the workplace might be unintentionally building a toxic workplace. You can feel free to invite employees to join you and their coworkers for social events. However, you should make it clear that it is not an expectation.

Don’t be afraid to address toxic workplace issues head-on

Toxic workplaces create any number of problems for business owners and employees alike. They stifle productivity, increased turnover, hurt resilience and tarnish employee loyalty. They can also lead to branding and reputation problems outside the workplace if frustrated employees start badmouthing their employer and coworkers.

Toxic workplaces can be difficult to turn around. One of the biggest problems is that managers are skittish about taking corrective action. Unfortunately, these problems become more ingrained in the company if they are not resolved. If the problematic culture in your workplace leads to issues of sexual harassment, discrimination or other forms of abuse, then your company could also face financially crippling lawsuits for not taking prompt action. You need to identify these issues as soon as possible and come to a resolution.

You Don’t Need a Massive Budget to Build a Strong Workplace Culture

Every organization needs a strong workplace culture to thrive. You don’t need a ton of money to pay six figure salaries and major benefits packages. If you follow the tips listed above, you should build a much happier team of employees.

About the Author

Emily Snell

Emily is a contributing marketing author at ChamberofCommerce.com where she regularly consults on content strategy and overall topic focus. Emily has spent the last 12 years helping hyper growth startups and well-known brands create content that positions products and services as the solution to a customer’s problem. To contact Emily about writing opportunities, her email is emily.snell@aol.com.

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