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What to do if your company has an identity crisis

Posted by Corey Moseley | 4 min read

culture identity crisis

The growth phase is an exciting time for any company. It’s a period when new people join, larger clients take notice, and the possibilities seem endless. The sky's the limit, as they say. But as companies grow and mature, they usually experience some… changes.

With the introduction of new faces and viewpoints, new funding and stakeholders, comes a shift in how your people think and behave. Growth, especially rapid growth, can very quickly change the way in which a brand is perceived in the public—and can drastically impact its internal corporate culture and behavior.

If this happens (or has already happened), some companies might experience a bit of an identity crisis. It’s what happens when the company’s culture is no longer consistent with its founding corporate values, when the principles that formerly defined how work was done begin to drift away and become “how things used to be.”

As Taryn Barnes puts it, “Few understand the importance of having a deep-analysis approach to sustaining their workplace culture. Without an intentional and proactive approach to engaging with your culture, candidates and employees can begin to feel the effects of a culture identity crisis.”

What are those effects? Companies undergoing a culture identity crisis may experience a decline in motivation, engagement, and in employee retention. That’s why organizations need to deal swiftly with an identity crisis before it’s too late.

So, let’s take a look at what can be done to get an organization’s company culture back on track.

Identify the inconsistencies

Company culture is always in a state of flux. It’s a living, breathing organism that can evolve (or devolve) as your organization grows. The key to understanding what’s changed (or in the process of changing) is to continually analyze it.

But of course it’s difficult to step outside your perspective as a dedicated employee and take a frank, unbiased look at what’s going wrong at your company. Which makes identifying the underlying causes of an identity crisis very challenging indeed.

This is why people pay loads of money to see therapists, after all. Similarly, in a business setting, your best bet may be to seek help from an outside consultant who can come in and make an unbiased diagnosis. This is generally called a culture audit.

Another option is to poll your people to find out what’s changed and what needs to be changed to realign with your company’s values. If there are inconsistencies between the culture and values at your organization, your people are often the most equipped to identify the problem(s).

But you’re probably looking for some examples of inconsistencies, right? Here are a few (and you might recognize some of these in your own organization):

  • Leadership has lost sight of the guiding core principles, or have adopted new values without outlining them for the rest of the organization
  • Core values are no longer a part of everyday work, for reasons such as new hires haven’t been appropriately vetted for culture fit, or leaders haven’t been proactive enough about championing culture
  • The company’s purpose has changed or evaporated, leaving committed veterans with a formerly strong sense of purpose high and dry
  • Increased public scrutiny has revealed longstanding and still unaddressed culture issues, affecting morale across the organization
  • Engaged culture champions have left the company, and no one, including leadership, has stepped up to replace them

Once you've begun to understand the problem, it's time to take the next steps.

Leadership needs to be present and open

A 2015 report on culture and engagement by Deloitte says it best: “Culture is driven from the top down. Yet most executives cannot even define their organization’s culture, much less figure out how to disseminate it through the company.”

To confront your corporate identity crisis head-on, you’ll need a strong leadership presence to first be able to adequately define their company’s culture, then have an honest conversation about understanding how the culture and core values have drifted apart.

Tricia Emerson sums it up nicely: “You need enough people to create momentum. Put them in a room at the same time. You want them to hear the same message and, ideally, work together to design new ways of working. You can even do this with hundreds of people at once—it’s incredibly powerful. When they leave, they will have a shared vision of what has to happen.”

The goal here is to let your people know that, yes, you understand that things have changed and you’re doing everything within your power to investigate why the core values are no longer relevant at your workplace.

It’s also worth pointing out that your company probably won’t ever return to the corporate culture that existed in the very beginning. Why? Because company culture doesn’t work that way. It’s always evolving. But the good news is, with some work, you can direct it back towards your original values.

Take action

Solving a culture identity crisis will take time, and a whole lot of patience. It starts with charting a new direction with an updated, though still consistent, set of company values, rituals, and symbols. Here’s Tricia Emerson again to explain:

“Change symbols that represent the old culture. Examine work spaces, pay scales, meeting structures, social rituals, and brand names. Such artifacts can trigger old habits. Rid the organization of them and replace them with fresh symbols that signal a new day.”

The goal here is to get tactical: what needs to change on a day-to-day basis and how can each employee play a part? Every proposed change, at every level, must play into the revised framework set forth by your leadership team. This means enacting your company’s core values in every aspect of how your people work.

It’ll take a lot of work to drastically change the course of your organization, but here are a few things you can do to make the process slightly more structured:

  • Build and incorporate new training and behaviors to help new hires and veteran employees acclimate to core values
  • Alter performance management and evaluations so that they align more closely with values. Communicate these changes so that everyone understand expectations
  • Set a deadline: a 90-day plan to revitalize and realign your company culture will get people changing the way they work from day one
  • Make culture fit and values alignment a priority in hiring
  • Get leadership to lead the charge throughout every aspect of the process

Conclusion

A culture identity crisis is not the end of the world. Far from it. It presents an opportunity to take a step back and refocus on what your company stands for, what matters to your people, and the ways in which work gets done. If recognized early, an identity crisis is a chance to set your sights on the future: it enables you to envision the company you want to become as you continue to grow.

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