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Businesses are like miniature societies, and like all societies, each business has its own unique culture. Of course, because businesses are largely self-contained, their cultures are flexible and open to change–not without great difficulty, though–so capable leaders can use their company’s culture as a powerful tool to drive success. However, when mismanaged or left unattended, culture can also be a weight around a company’s neck.

Individual Cultures

Most companies aren’t aware of the role that culture plays within their organization or how they can shape it, so they lapse into what I call “individual cultures.” In this kind of business culture, individuals place their own personal success above all else, and anything goes as long as they come out on top. Employees are prone to argue with each other, only do as much work as they think is necessary to get by, and generally experience dissatisfaction with their jobs. And since everyone is fighting to ensure their own success, nothing gets done well and these employees wind up dragging down the entire company.

Mission Cultures

The failure of individual cultures in business comes as no surprise: If the sum of a company’s parts don’t work together, then of course the company will stall out. After all, when individuals focus only on themselves, teamwork becomes impossible and any professional goals become secondary to their own advancement. That’s why companies should strive to develop mission oriented cultures. A company’s mission, or its values and goals, binds people together. It offers focus. If a company can use its culture as a vehicle to get employees to buy into the mission, then they’re more invested in their work and put the success of the mission before themselves.

Changing a business’ culture and convincing employees to buy in is difficult, but one way to approach the challenge is to build teams around your mission. If teams are designed with the mission in mind and teams are constantly reminded of the mission, then the individuals who serve on those teams will internalize the mission over time. That way, the entire company will come to embrace the mission as their highest goal.

Putting it into Practice

For example, I once took part in a restructuring at a movie studio, and it was clear from the first day that the business’ culture was painfully individualistic. It was a toxic environment where the employees were fighting to survive–with each other and with clients–and the company’s CEO did nothing to help ease the situation. One of my first initiatives was to work with the employees to define the organization’s mission and incorporating it into practices at every level of the company. We reorganized teams, shifted individuals, reassigned duties, and much more. Soon after, employees came to work feeling excited and left feeling fulfilled. People abandoned their formerly combative attitudes. In short, they had shifted to a mission culture. No one there had realized the relationship between culture and teams, but once they did, they were well on their way toward meeting their goal of becoming the best independent studio in the country.

Further Reading

For more on the intersection of business culture and teamwork, be sure to read Blair Singer’s fantastic book, The ABCs of Building a Business Team That Wins: The Invisible Code of Honor That Takes Ordinary People and Turns them Into a Championship Team.