What can the right culture do for your business? Short answer: more time, a better business, and happier employees all rolled into one. That's just for starters.
But how to get there? Consider the example from Malcolm Gladwell’s great book, The Tipping Point, in which he recalled the New York City Subway system in the 1980s.
It was one of the worst eras of the transit system: reeking of crime, inattention, graffiti and worse. Gangs and thugs, broken windows and cars were the norm; vandals and fare jumpers made the subway a risk to be avoided.
Today, the NYC subway is safe and relatively clean. So what happened? Study how the culture of the subway changed for answers.
As Gladwell explains, in the late 80s and early 90s, criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling started espousing the “Broken Windows” theory.
The idea: small crimes like tagging and vandalism, resulting in, for instance, decrepit subway cars with broken windows, led to a sense of general lawlessness. It created a culture among criminals that they could get away with crimes large and small with such subway neglect the norm.
To counter this, NYC subway authorities deployed the Broken Window theory to clean up the system. They cracked down on small crime and worked up the chain. First they attacked the graffiti, cleaning up subway cars one at a time. Every time a car was fixed and cleaned, it was not allowed to fall into disrepair again. The graffitless subway cars soon became a potent signal of law and order.
The police attacked each of the smaller problems in turn. For instance, fare jumpers were arrested, chained together, and made into a public spectacle. Suddenly even minor crimes in the subway system had a price.
Before long, the subways no longer seemed like a place where crime could or did easily exist.
While each act was seemingly small in its own right, combined, those simple changes created a whole new context for the subway system. By changing the little things, NYC transit officials actually changed the entire culture of the subway system.
And once that happened, things got much easier and better because what people had come to expect and tolerate changed. The more people expected safety and cleanliness, the less the opposite was tolerated. The easier it became to reinforce the new culture.
Consider what a powerful example this could be for your business. All small businesses have a culture. Some are by design but most are by default. The culture usually reflects the temperament, personality, and values of the owner. That may be a good thing, and then again, it may not. The culture in your business may be one where crude jokes are the norm, or tardiness, or management by fear, or laziness.
Whatever the case, the good news is that the example of the NYC subway system proves that changing your culture need not be a herculean task. It really is a matter of simply figuring out what you want your business culture to be and then looking to find some small root indicators that can be changed.
Maybe you have a receptionist who has grown a tad bored or lazy; her inattentiveness tells other employees that just getting by is acceptable. By getting her to change (however you need to do that), you can begin to break the bad cycle. Do that with two or three other things and witness the transformation.
More importantly, once you create the culture you desire, it will create a new context. A culture of positive reinforcement will beget a business of positive reinforcement, which, in turn will create a culture of positive reinforcement.
The values will live on, even if you are taking a week off in Hawaii.
A good culture can be a train that everybody wants to board.