MenLinjuanRita_SpotlightOn September 22, 2014, the largest global IPO in history was marked by the $25 billion value of Alibaba Group. Even though I left the company seven years ago, I was proud and excited the moment the bell rang. Earlier this summer, I interviewed one of the co-founders of Alibaba Group, who had started an investment firm in Hangzhou for another research project I was conducting. When I mentioned that I was an Alibaba Alumni, his eyes sparkled and I immediately felt a bond formed between us. He explained to me that the cultural values of Alibaba, such as “customer first,” “integrity,” and “embrace change” influenced his leadership style, management philosophy and the foundation of his current startup company.

Culture works this way. A strong culture of a great company unifies and educates people, and it may have an enduring and lifetime impact on its employees. The company culture and values at Alibaba are lifelines that tremendously contributed to the company’s success beyond its corporate strategy and leadership. Jack Ma also noted in an interview in 2013 that values and mission should come before a corporate strategy can be formulated. As a conglomerate with 10 diversified business units, “today’s Alibaba is not built by stitching pieces together, but by missions and values.”

According to a recent study conducted by Deloitte University Press, culture and employee engagement issues have become the primary challenge in businesses around the world. In fact, business leaders and professionals have long recognized the importance of culture for business success, performance and sustainability. Indeed, what is culture? Culture has been conceptualized as a collection of key values, symbols, meanings, beliefs, assumptions and expectations that organizational members share (Sriramesh, Grunig, & Buffington, 1992). Culture is “how things get done, and it is created, sustained, and changed by its members and subcultures” (Berger, 2014). Rooted in the organization, lived by its members, and manifested in every aspect, one can say culture is nothing and also everything.

Several studies in management and communication fields have documented evidence that culture influences various employee outcomes, such as job satisfaction, employee trust, commitment, identification with the organization, engagement and overall relationship quality with the company. So, is there such a thing called good or bad culture? What makes an ideal corporate culture? What kind of culture engages employees? Certainly, these ongoing debates and problems call for constant research and discussions. I dare not provide answers in a single blog post, but I would love to exchange a brick for a jade. Below are some thoughts based on my previous research and a recent study I conducted with Dr. Hua Jiang from Syracuse University on culture, leadership and communication.

Q: What kind of culture could engage employees?

1). Openness and transparency: Employees feel free to voice their opinions, ideas, concerns, or even criticisms in the organization. Information is freely shared and exchanged in an accurate, substantially complete, timely, balanced and unbiased manner in the company.

2). Integrity and trust: Moral values, such as honesty, integrity, and truthfulness, are emphasized and implemented in the organization. The value of “no cheating, no lies” is stressed. Employees, managers and employees are then able to trust each other.

3). Participation and empowerment: Employees are given opportunities to participate in the decision-making process and feel empowered to exert influence in the organization. Teamwork, dialogues and collaboration are emphasized.

4). Fairness: Employees are treated fairly without favoritism. They are also valued and appreciated. They are provided opportunities for professional growth, praised, or given a higher pay for better achievement and performance.

5). Supportiveness: Employees are treated as individuals, cared, and supported by the organization. Employees feel free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another­.

6). Innovation: Employees are encouraged to be open-minded, take risks, embrace changes, think outside of the box and take innovative initiatives. Creativity and entrepreneurship are valued.

7). Sharing and learning: Employees openly share their knowledge, experience and information within the corporate community. Sharing and continuous learning from one another is rewarded and encouraged.

8). Diversity: The organization embraces individuals for their uniqueness and diverse backgrounds regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Differences and various perspectives are respected and valued.

9). Social responsibility: The organization recognizes its association with the environment and the society at large, establishes an ultimate goal towards supporting a cause, and commits to solving social problems.

10). Fun, joy, and happiness: Fun, joy, and positive emotions are instilled in the workplace. Employees work in an easy, uplifting atmosphere and happy mood. Achievements are celebrated, appreciated and rewarded.

The list may go on. One may also argue that other company cultures work as well, such as the “hacker” culture of Facebook, Microsoft’s aggressive culture, and Four Season’s service culture. Indeed, a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. Industry type, nature of the business, values, and preferences of founders, and style of leadership may all play a factor here. Further, multiple cultures may co-exist in an organization. To make things more complicated, subcultures could develop under certain departments. If performance is the only thing people care for, a result-oriented culture may be the best path to follow. However, for evergreen businesses, long-term success of the company, and particularly an engaged workforce who are deeply connected to the organization, the above 10 points may offer a starting point.

To conclude the article, a vital question to answer is “What should leaders do to establish a corporate culture for engagement?”

  • Identify a cause. Find out the area where your company may have the greatest impact in society, a cause that plays to the company’s biggest strength. Align the corporate mission with social development. Dare to aim high. For example, Facebook aims to “make the world more open and connected.” Uber focuses on making “transportation as reliable as running water.”
  • Establish and communicate mission, vision, and values. Treat the cultural foundation as DNAs, publicize and interpret the mission and values, discuss these aspects at every opportunity, and reward those who remember, understand and practice the principles.
  • Act as role models for values. Be the kind of person whom you want the employees to be, align your words and actions, corporate strategies, policies, and business objectives with corporate culture and values. For example, in Alibaba’s Business to Business (B2B) customer incident, Jack Ma pulled out the CEO and his entire team for their violations of the corporate value of integrity.
  • Make it a sustainable model and system. Treat culture development part of your business, allocate resources, ensure appropriate organizational structure, develop systematic HR and communication strategies and initiatives to accomplish the purpose, and evaluate the effectiveness of programs.
  • Integrate culture into leadership and communication practices. Develop leadership style and communication system that reflect corporate culture. For instance, authentic leadership reflects a culture of integrity, openness and transparency. Transformational leadership involves cultural elements of power sharing, supportiveness and innovation. Likewise, an open and transparent culture of course requires two-way, dialogical and symmetrical communication to be in the place.
  • Recruit and cultivate the right person. Select new hires who fit the corporate culture and enroll them in training programs to educate them into the organizational culture, traditions, and values.
  • Create legends and tell stories. Use rhetorical skills to tell inspiring stories that illustrate the mission, culture and values of organizations. Reinforce the desired behavior by creating legends, repeat these anecdotes and reward employees who follow these.

Let me stop here. What are your thoughts and experience on developing a culture for engagement?

Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Florida and the research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow her on Twitter @RitaMen_UF.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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