What’s the Big Deal about Culture?

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Culture – you've heard that word before. Contrary to what some believe, it's not an urban myth. Culture is the lifeblood of your restaurant, nightclub or bar. It's a beacon that sends a vibe to those who like the message your culture sends out. It's like your own personal Bat-Signal for your brand. So yes, it's a big deal.

Describe Your Culture

Here's where we run into the problem. Culture is hard to describe because it's more of a feeling. Even now as you think about how to describe your culture, you’re probably struggling and searching for the right words. The part of your brain (the limbic system) that handles those messy emotions has a hard time expressing them. That part is taken over by the neocortex, which has an easier time rationalizing what you are feeling into language.

So don't feel bad if you have a hard time describing your culture – it's common. Look at those feelings and tap into those emotions. The key to culture can be summed up in two words: core values. (Are you having déjà vu from an earlier post?)

Digging for Your Values

Many don't really understand the lasting impact core values have on your brand as well as yourself. Core values become a compass for decision making and staying true to your brand identity’s development and maintenance. One of the biggest contributors to the downfall of a brand is lack of identity. If you are not sure of who you are and what you stand for, how do you expect to attract talent or guests?

There are two main types of core values to consider when exploring and creating your brand's values list. One set is your aspirational core values, and it includes what you wish you were. The other set is your authentic core values, and it’s who you truly are.

Aspirational Core Values: These are what can be described as surface values. Aspirational core values are the go-to words that people think, as the word “aspirational” indicates, they want to define them. It's like you were walking in a field of core value words and you thought no further than, “Some of these words sound good.”

We all have aspirations to be better (except for those who are addicted to being average, but that’s not you). However, wanting to be better and doing something to actually become better are two rather different things. A lot of people talk a good game; few can play the game at its highest levels, long term.

Here are some common aspirational core values: pride, integrity, teamwork, punctuality, cleanliness, honesty, service, and profitability. The main focus of aspirational core values is they focus on what you want to be.

Now, maybe some of those values aren’t just talk and you actually live and breathe them every day. Those of core values actually resonate with who you are and describe and define you. That makes them authentic.

Authentic Core Values: These are your real core values, those rooted deeply in your identity. The funny thing about identity is we will go to extremes to protect it. For example, if you think you’re “hip,” you go out of your way to dress and act in a manner that supports that identity. Too many people focus on their identity and not on the real essence of who they are.

You'll need to go beyond the cheap talk and surface values and get down to your real core. You need to ask quality questions that provoke quality answers. Don't go for the easy words – it’s time to think and then think some more:

  • What do you stand for?
  • What is a principle you believe in?
  • What feelings get stirred up when you get upset? Do you feel a lack of respect? A sense of dishonesty? Intolerance?

You'll have to really dig down to uncover your authentic core values. It’s hard work but the great thing about taking on this exercise is that once you find your true core values, you'll know right away because you really cannot live without them. These could also be called your nonnegotiable values; you would not sacrifice them for a quick buck or toss them to the side if they were an inconvenience. Authentic core values are you in your purest form.

Some deep rooted core values might include: learning, humor, compassion, family, kaizen (the Japanese word for “continual improvement”), creativity, accountability, and hospitality. Unlike aspirational core values, authentic core values focus on who you are as a human being. These are the seeds of greatness – you must learn how to cultivate them.

Growing Core Values

So hopefully you have some core values you are willing to share will your team. Not so fast. Planting the seeds of core values in your culture is the easy part, nurturing them and watching them grow will require some work. Hey, if it was easy then everyone would have the restaurant or bar they want already!

Don't place your core values on a poster, employee handbook, or send them out in an email. If you have sent them out to your employees via one of these avenues, give yourself a timeout for being bad. Words and core values need to be explained and discussed. Posting your core values without actually discussing and explaining them represents the second sin in the restaurant and bar business: poor communication. (The number one sin is mediocrity, in case you were wondering.)

When you present a core value like respect, what does that mean to you? That's the key. The only definition that matters for your brand is yours. Too many times we throw out words and assume people know our meaning. They do, but in the sense that they have their own meaning, and sometimes that meaning is not the same as yours. Clarity solves that conundrum. Talk to your team about what each core value means to you and for your brand.

Lastly, you must be a living example of your core values. Hypocrisy runs rampant in our industry and your team will see through it faster than a speeding bullet! Don't think for a second that you have them fooled. Remember these words by Shakespeare from his play As You Like It: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

You must set the example for your team by showing them your core values in action, and that means your actions. There is a Latin phrase that is the slogan for Joint Task Force 2, an elite special operations force of the Canadian Armed Forces that you should incorporate into your life: Facta non verba. Those words translate to “Deeds, not words.” You team does not care about what you say you will do, they only care about what you actually do, period. If your core values are authentic they will shine though how you talk, act, and run your business.

Culture is a feeling that is built upon values. You can't fake culture; you can only grow your culture by nurturing those emotions and values that make you unique. Restaurants and bars with outstanding cultures might find one of their entrées or drinks copied and placed on a competitor’s menu. The one thing that will be hard (or impossible) for a competitor to reproduce is your culture because a part of its DNA is you and your values.

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