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Why and How We Must Embrace the Malleability of Culture

By Courtney Walker, Managing Director

Just as company values and unwritten ‘rules’ are never one-size-fits-all affairs, nor are they cast in stone. Organizations adapt to change, and employees must, too. Beware the unyielding.

Communications teams are continually talking about the importance of company culture. It’s baked into messaging, Q&As and talking points for executives.

Now more than ever, companies are changing at a rapid pace. As communications pros, we have to start thinking about culture as an evolving entity and ask: What does it take for employees to fit into a given culture in this new environment?

Let’s pretend that employees’ fitting into a company culture is like their fitting into a sweater. You have three candidates in front of you. One is wearing a sweater one size too large. One is wearing a sweater that looks perfectly tailored with no room in any dimension. Last, you have someone who, let’s charitably say, is wearing the same size sweater as they did when they were in high school. Which person would you choose to hire?

Most hiring managers are dazzled by candidates they instantly imagine fitting in. Personally, I imagine who they will go to lunch with, the great ideas they will have in brainstorms, the new business pitches where they will answer the crucial question. Basically, I want the candidate whose fit is impeccable.

Very often, that’s not the right answer. Hiring managers should be taking a closer look at the person in the loose sweater, because this person could probably fit into any number of sweaters—be they cardigans, pullovers or woolen vests.

In short, research is finding that companies shouldn’t be hiring the talent that fits impeccably into their culture today. Ideally, you want someone who is culturally adaptable and who will fit into your culture tomorrow.

Companies are like organisms; they evolve.

Harvard Business Review conducted a study evaluating the language used by employees via Glassdoor, email and Slack over several years and found that those employees who were able to change and flex their communication style over time were more likely to enjoy enduring success versus those who were a cultural fit when they were hired but couldn’t evolve.

So, what can we do as PR professionals to adapt to the changing tide of culture?

  1. Talk about culture beyond values. Right now, when we talk about culture, we are pretty much only talking about values. Case in point, Uber had a massive reset culturally for a whole host of reasons. However, when they revealed how the new C-Suite would move forward, they just tweaked their values. That can’t be the entire story, because there is no way they would hire the same crop of people as those who flourished under the old regime. Yes, values are important, but there is no indication of what type of people would blossom in the reimagined organization.
  2. Concede that culture is transient. We talk about culture largely as a fixed point. What if we didn’t? What if we described culture as a moving and evolving story? It would allow us to double down on the need for our colleagues to be adaptable while enabling us to tell the company story in a new way. We can talk about how companies are culturally different from how they were just a year ago. How will they be different a year from now? How did employees adapt and help make that change? How are we stronger now to take on new challenges?
  3. Understand that employees evolve, too. It’s not only the company story that changes, but also employee stories—those first-person accounts about why they work for a given employer. That’s great, but there is no sense of how they have personally changed and how their moving environment has attracted new people. Personal change is interesting as a storytelling device, and it’s what will attract customers and talent to your brand.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that culture is more than shared values. Company culture changes rapidly, so employees must, as well. When you can, embrace the baggy sweater.

Originally published in Ragan’s PR Daily on March 11, 2020