By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.

The social and health pandemics that began in 2020 have strained organizations and leaders in powerful ways. For example, remote work for knowledge workers has challenged deeply held habits and beliefs about what it means to be employed by a single company. Employees have proven they can be highly productive for an extended period with no physical connection to a building or co-workers. Does that make all employees free agents? And if we are all free agents, is organizational culture a thing of the past? If so, then what binds people together who work for the same company? Are equity and inclusion meaningless in this new world, or is it more important than ever before?

It is worth remembering humans are social animals. Our behavior is meaningfully influenced by others in our proximity. This influence can have negative implications, when we consider concepts like groupthink, social loafing, or herd mentality. In groups, individuals can abdicate decisions to the whole and give up their sense of choice and rationality. In some of the most extreme examples, we saw this kind of group influence go wildly wrong in the cases of Enron and Arthur Andersen in 2001 and 2002. In both the cases, organizational culture gave individuals assumed permission to make horrible choices with horrible consequences for tens of thousands of people. Given those examples, are we better off sitting in our kitchens with our laptops on video meetings all day? Could organizational culture be a thing of the past?  

While there are many examples where being in a group has steered people wrong, there are many more positives that derive from being with a group of people who have built a culture to support the kind of behavior they believe will lead to their shared success. A common phrase to illustrate the point is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Indeed, individuals can achieve much more together than we can in isolation, which is what organizations do: They use combined effort to achieve exceptional results. And culture is the glue that holds those people together and allows those results to be realized.

A healthy organizational culture is a necessary component of organizational success. At its core, culture creates something every company needs to succeed: Alignment. Culture is what assures our individual productivity is aimed in the same direction for the same purpose.

And, while culture is critical to organizational success, we’ve seen countless leaders struggle mightily to keep their company’s organizational culture alive under the stain of the pandemic. Creating and sustaining culture is not easy when half of your workforce was hired remotely and have never met face to face. Lawrence Bossidy and Ram Charan famously described organizational culture as the behaviors that leaders encourage, model, and tolerate. The challenge is in today’s climate, our behavior is so constrained it’s nearly impossible to “model” or “encourage” anything close to a consistent set of behaviors. Leaders can lean on “tolerate” and remove or chastise employees who behave badly, but that is no way to build a positive productive culture.

While leaders have historically been able to lean on informal interactions and in-person observations to shape organizational culture, those methods are no longer available for most workers. It has become extremely difficult to let employees know when they are in-line or out of line with company culture. Communicating behavioral expectations in a consistent way is nearly impossible. As such, leaders are turning increasingly to formal methods like 360 Feedback, quarterly performance reviews, and regular 1-1 meetings to communicate expectations, to flag when employees have veered off the path, and to encourage their efforts when they are aligned.

Initially, structured feedback mechanisms may feel less natural or comfortable than other methods of creating an aligned culture, but these approaches do have some advantages over more informal methods. First, creating a structured feedback tool allows leaders to very specifically articulate the culture needed to achieve the company’s strategy. Senior leaders can include very specific behaviors they expect of all leaders and cascade these expectations enterprise-wide.

Second, giving feedback using a structured tool allows for some standardization of expectations significantly improves alignment across groups of individuals. For example, when your entire team of seven direct reports all get feedback on a behavioral item like “includes appropriate stakeholders in decision making” they all hear the same message about what behavior is important. Informal methods often lead to miscommunication so that a few of the seven get different – or even conflicting messages.

And third, when an entire team is all evaluated on the same set of culturally aligned behaviors using a structured process, the leader of the team can look at aggregate results to quickly and concretely understand which aspects of the culture are being modelled well and which areas may need some further encouragement. And, in the extreme, this kind of feedback can flag those individuals who are not aligned with the culture at all and whose behavior should not be tolerated.

While it may seem our world has been turned upside down in too many ways to count, some elements of organizational life and leadership remain constant. People still need leaders who have a vision for the future, communicate current status, care about their people, and focus on results. And companies still need a clear strategically aligned culture to keep their people rowing in the same direction to achieve the same goals. In the current climate of volatility and uncertainty, we are all facing personally and professionally, leaders are well advised to continue shaping culture with clear expectations and useful feedback about alignment with those expectations. We may have lost access to the small informal moments together that help us know we are on the same team – but if leaders shift to more formal structured feedback tools, they can keep driving their culture and their organizations toward results.

While the disruptions of the last two years have made it difficult to manage, a healthy organizational culture still eats strategy for lunch. Even in trying circumstances, leaders can manage culture well by being more intentional about expectations and using structured feedback methods to clarify and align behavioral expectations across the company.

Perhaps, the silver lining in leaders being pushed into more formal feedback methods is, this is a skill a leader should master regardless of the circumstances. 360 Feedback, performance management, formal mentoring, and expectation setting are critical skills for any leader to shape company culture. Let’s hope the formal feedback skills leaders learn during this period of forced practice have a carryover effect so they come out better at giving feedback, receiving feedback, and supporting their teams.

One thing is for certain: Leaders who give up on managing culture because old familiar methods are not available, will surely lose out to leaders who embrace the challenge and build the skills they should have been using in the first place.   

Article originally published in HR.com.

Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.