How to avoid cultural clusters

By Greg Nathan | 22 Jul 2019 View comments

Culture is one of my favourite words. Culture is what happens when people who live, work or hang out together, agree on how they will interact with each other and do things. This agreement is usually unspoken. It is a sort of “knowing” how we will do things when we come together. This knowing comes from watching and listening to people who have respect and influence in the group – usually the leaders. Interestingly, the most powerful transfer of culture comes not from what people say but from what they do.

When a leader says “we treat everyone equally and with respect”, but then singles out friends or family for special privileges, we learn it’s not who you are, but who you know that determines your success around here.

When a boss says “we learn from our mistakes and look after our customers” but then self-justifies every mistake she makes and swears under her breath after hanging up from a customer, the team learns that, to get on here, you need to cover your butt and treat customers like rubbish.

In other words, culture is caught not taught.

How we learn culture

Culture also comes from the history of the group, which will have been informally handed on to newer members through examples or stories. In a business this will often start with, “You should have been here when…” or “”Oh don’t worry about that, we just deal with that by….”

We learn the culture of our family by watching our parents or our elder siblings. We learn the culture of our community by watching how people with influence treat each other. And we learn the culture of our nation by listening to the stories of the heroes and pioneers that shaped our nation – and especially by watching how our leaders respond to challenge and adversity.

While the most striking differences in cultures occur between different countries or communities, cultures are always developing and evolving in work places and in franchise networks. The fascinating thing about culture in franchise networks is we have different national cultures being overlaid onto an existing organisational culture.

This can lead to “cultural clusters” where people band together in like groups. In franchise networks we see this in group meetings where franchisees of different nationalities tend to sit together. There is of course nothing wrong with this. But there are good reasons why franchisors should encourage franchisees to identify more with their franchise culture than their national cultures.

The most important of these is consistency. For a brand to flourish there needs to be consistency in how all franchisees lead and manage their staff and how they deliver the customer experience.

We also regularly see cultural cultures occurring between departments, groups of different tenures, and different age groups. Culture is far from a nationality thing.

How to achieve cultural consistency

So how do you get consistency in your franchise culture and avoid cultural clusters? Here are a few tips.

Think about what makes your business special or different to your competitors or other businesses in your space. Articulate this in your own words. For instance, “The reason we are so proud of what we do is….” Or “What makes us different from….is…….” Then see if you can put these into words that describe what’s important around here.

I personally suggest you avoid clichés such as “People first” and “Teamwork” and use everyday language or words that have a particular meaning to the sort of work you do. For instance in my own business we do a lot of work with concepts and data, and it is important the team are thinking carefully. So one of our values is Good Judgment, which we describe as thinking it through and making sound decisions.

Look back on the history of your business, the significant challenges and events that have shaped it and still influence it today for the better. Again see if you can articulate what these are and put them into words. These can then form part of your cultural values. For instance, “The thing we would always do when our back was against the wall was….” Or “When we decided to close down the….we were very careful to….”

What are your leadership values?

Again in my own business, I need people to trust us and tell us the truth on what’s going on in their business. So I have always been careful to be honest and never take advantage of information shared with us. I’ve done this even if it has resulted in us missing out on short-term business opportunities. So one of our values is Integrity described as being honest and never exploiting a situation or person.

Ensure the leaders of the business constantly talk about what’s important using stories and real examples that have required sacrifice or effort. This is when your values are tested.

If you decided to forego a short term financial benefit or invest additional money or time on something, when you didn’t really have to, explain why. Why did you decide not to take the franchise fee from someone who wanted to join your franchise?  You engage a consultant to review an aspect of your business and provide a warts and all report. But you could have just ignored it so why didn’t you? Why did you decide to postpone your vacation to attend to something? These all say something about what’s truly important in how you do things.

Create a culture plan

When people come together for meetings or events they are going to naturally cluster into things they have in common. So have a plan to mix people into diverse groups. The best way to do this is to be transparent and explain why you are doing this. Some of our clients actually have name cards to place people into diverse groups while others encourage the natural mixing of people by asking them to move the around throughout the day.

If you want to create a great culture that people buy into, think carefully about what’s important, and if you are in a leadership role, make sure you are practising this. For as I said earlier culture is caught not taught.