National cultures are, as HSBC’s advertising is keen to tell us, highly variable. Baring the soles of your feet may only cause remarks about personal hygiene in the UK, but is a social faux pas in Arabic countries and much of Asia. The things we celebrate – rather than recoil in horror from – are equally variable. Look at late October and early November around the world:  in India, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists celebrate Diwali and the triumph of good over evil, while in the UK we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. The use of explosives to celebrate the foiling of an early terrorist plot is, perhaps, proof of the great British love of irony (we seem to have abandoned the earlier tradition of cremating an effigy to add to the gaiety of the occasion – perhaps Health & Safety intervened?). In Japan, by contrast, 3 November is National Culture Day (or Bunka-no-hi), a national holiday when the Japanese celebrate their culture and its traditions. Which got me thinking. If a country can celebrate its culture in a national day that brings the community together, why – given how important culture is to employee engagement and to overall morale and performance – can’t organisations?

There are any number of ‘secular holidays’ around the world, some more widely celebrated than others: a few that caught my eye include Random Acts of Kindness Day (with a national website in New Zealand), National Day Of Listening (again, a national website – in the US – for what is part cultural event and part oral history project) The world doesn’t lack lists of suggested activities to boost employee engagement. A few seconds with a search engagement found a blog posting and an online Powerpoint Presentation. Elements that may get categorised under headings of ‘culture’ or ‘celebration’ do make the lists on the blog posting, although these are perhaps more ‘team away days’ than celebrations of aspects of the culture of the organisation: 

 1.  Picnic at regular intervals
2. Movie at interval of 2 months […]
7. Live version of internal house magazine […]
11. Monthly staff awards
12. Annual staff awards […]
18. Conducting soft skills training program as well as required training programs  […]
20. Provide long term strategic vision for business growth.
21. Indoor Games as well as Outdoor games, like Chess, Cricket, Badminton etc..
22. Celebration of Employees Birthday

These are all laudable ideas in themselves, but I was thinking along slightly different lines. Try reading Sam Ladner’s article, Organizational Culture 101: A Practical How-To For Interaction Designers, which is much more concerned with what makes an organisation’s culture unique. (She writes from the perspective of an external web design agency – in which she has my empathy – but her points are general.) For example, organisations may have a profound respect for tradition, or a fascination with innovation; they may have an individualistic culture (driven by creativity, by internal competitiveness or both), or value consensus. Their values (should) reflect their vision, but they will (ok, should) inform, shape and guide its culture.

What I had in mind was something that celebrates things that have helped to shape a culture that succeeds both in the sense of supporting performance and encouraging satisfaction and engagement. Something more like some of the ideas that Hunter Moorman, Education Policy Fellowship Program Director at the Institute for Education Leadership writes about in Celebrating Accomplishments – New Perspectives on the ‘Gold Star’: 

  • Motivate staff by celebrating accomplishments that reinforce key values. Former Vice President Al Gore communicated his value of “reinventing government” with the “Hammer Award” for innovations that made the government “work better and cost less.”
  • Share responsibility for celebrations with the celebrants. When Institute for Education Leadership President Betty Hale established the “Gold Star” award, she asked each current award recipient to choose the next recipient. This served as a demonstration of the commitment to make all staff feel more a part of the common culture.
  • Get the right people involved. At the Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools annual retirement ceremony for some 400 teachers and administrators, the entire school board personally congratulates each honoree, powerfully endorsing the value of these employees’ years of service.”

What you celebrate would depend on your own organisation’s values – innovation, respect, integrity, quality – and you should celebrate it accordingly: one idea that often figures in lists of employee engagement activities – the suggestions box (or intranet form, for the more digitised amongst us) – should play a part in deciding the “how”. Interpreting a cultural value in a new way – celebrating diversity by attending a world music event or organising a dinner with dishes from around the world, or valuing innovation by visiting a science show or inviting an inventor to give a speech – can bring it to life for the previously unengaged: inviting their ideas for interpretation can further trigger their engagement.

Hunter Morrman also makes another valuable point. Culture may be shaped by vision, mission and value statements crafted by organisational leaders and cast in stone (or its modern equivalents) by their HR departments, but it is lived through the daily actions of the whole organisation. If a man in the post room or a woman in the canteen – should you still have one – has done the most to personify your cultural values, recognise them and be proud of them. Invent an appropriate award and give it to them. You don’t have to be in charge to set a good example, after all.

And don’t overlook the importance of celebrating – it’s integral to the final stage of the well known Norming, Storming, Forming and Performing model of team development, as teams celebrate their successes, not just for the sake of it but because celebrating our successes is highly motivating in itself.

In describing Japan’s National Culture Day at the blog Japundit, David Weber wrote:

Whatever its origins, a Culture Day holiday is a wonderful idea. The modern world needs such days to reflect on the cultures of the past by both learning from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them and keeping traditional arts alive to be passed down to future generations.”

But I think the modern organisation can interpret that in a less historical sense (unless tradition is one of your key culturual values, of course): a Company Culture Day could do more than respect an organisation’s history, growth and evolution – although understanding our history is, after all, to know why we are where we are. It could creatively engage the entire company in experiencing and living its values first-hand and understanding them from a fresh perspective. And if you can’t make that pay dividends, perhaps you should be revisiting your values. Or start celebrating Groundhog Day …

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