4 types of culture conversations to have with your employees


Learn how to design a culture change program that excites and engages employees.

How would you describe organisational culture? Leadership and culture expert Shane Hatton put this question to 1000 Australian managers when researching for his book Let’s Talk Culture, and only one in 10 could offer a consistent response.

It’s challenging to describe a somewhat nebulous topic like this, especially one that can so easily mean different things to different people. So, Hatton put structure around it.

“Culture always refers to something that’s collective, which means you have to have the buy-in of everyone for it to be a culture. The second element is that culture is made up of both seen and unseen elements,” he says.

This means things such as your organisation’s beliefs, values and assumptions – intangible elements that you can’t see – are observable in tangible things, such as your company’s systems, practices and policies.

So how do you mould those tangible and intangible elements into something that has an impact? First, you focus on getting collective buy-in, says Hatton.

Employees need to feel they are contributing to building a culture; it can’t just be determined at an executive level, or people will struggle to get excited by it.

He suggests starting by gathering employee sentiment about what the culture should look like and, with that information, collectively setting your expectations for one another.

“Most frustrations, disappointments and tensions at work come down to a misalignment of expectations.

“Most of our core expectations about how we show up at work are very consistent. We want the same things: to be treated with respect, to be in an engaging and fun and optimistic environment, and to feel empowered. So this conversation is designed to get the right voices into the room to surface what is unspoken.”

Four ways to have culture conversations

While an expectation conversation is a great place to start, Hatton says culture conversations shouldn’t stop there. 

You need to continue discussing and realigning at various points throughout the journey. For example, you can have:

Aspiration conversations – Talk about how you want your culture to feel to employees, says Hatton.

“Maybe you want to have an innovative culture, or maybe it’s a flexible culture or an optimistic culture.” 

Essentially, you need to determine your organisation’s culture North Star.

Clarification conversations – These are about defining what alignment with this culture looks like.

“Ask the question, ‘As an organisation, if we were to commit to the behaviours that would make the biggest impact and move the needle closer towards those cultural aspirations, what would those be?’”

Then, it’s on the entire team to model those behaviours and hold each other accountable to them, says Hatton.

Commitment conversations – Next, you need to communicate your commitments as a team.

“Consider how to turn this into embedded practices that are part of your everyday conversations,” says Hatton.

Challenge conversations – Once a culture journey is well underway, it’s important to have agreed language and processes for challenging colleagues when they’re not living up to aspirations you set as a team. 

Hatton suggests having challenge conversations as a “course-correction” practice, to avoid things snowballing into larger issues.

“Culture always refers to something that’s collective, which means you have to have the buy-in of everyone for it to be a culture.” – Shane Hatton, author, speaker and culture expert

“Teach people how to do these three things: make an observation, state an impact and ask for input. If you do these three things, you’ll have a very helpful conversation.

“For example, you might have decided as a team that you want a culture where everyone’s voice is heard. And then you’re in a meeting and someone’s sitting there on their laptop the whole time,” he says. “The observation-impact-input conversation might look like saying, ‘Hey, I noticed you were engaged on your laptop for the whole meeting. What that meant was that we didn’t get to hear much of your contribution and, when we got together as a team, we said we wanted a collaborative culture. I’d love to know what your thoughts are on that.’ 

“Now they know the impact their behaviour had on our culture and they’ve got space to share their perspective.”

They might say they’ve been feeling overworked, for example – then, the conversation becomes about how to support them. Or, they might disclose a personal issue that’s stealing their attention.

“All of a sudden, a confronting conversation turns into a completely different and supportive conversation.”

Equally important is celebrating people who are seen to be championing your culture, he says.

“If we were just as intentional about celebrating the good in the people in our teams as we were criticising the bad, we would see an increase in people’s responses, because what gets rewarded gets repeated.”

The power of language in shaping culture

While researching for his book, Hatton found that around a third of people said shared cultural language is a key contributor to a healthy culture.

He put this to the test when working with car hire company SIXT on setting a new culture journey. 

“I think cultural language is one of the most overlooked opportunities for teams to help design culture.” – Shane Hatton, author,  speaker and culture expert

“What they did, which I haven’t seen a lot of, is get intentional about how they communicated the language of their desired culture to the team,” he says.

They worked together to develop what they called an ‘open-road manifesto’ outlining cultural expectations, designed collaboratively with employees.

“Because they’re a car hire company, they use the metaphor of a road trip as a way to articulate their cultural aspirations.”

The manifesto said things like, ‘Customers are our keys – just like keys ignite the engines of our cars, our customers ignite the spirit of our business. They’re the beginning and the destination of all of our work,’ and, ‘We understand how important it is to make time to check under the hood. Just like a thorough car check isn’t only about nuts and bolts, our way of working isn’t only about the tasks and deadlines. It’s about people, thoughts and ideas.’

“The language is quite aspirational, but it’s relevant to their context. That line ‘Our customers are our keys’ was one of their key pieces of cultural language. And their cultural mantra, in a way, was ‘Check under the hood.’”

To launch this manifesto, Hatton, along with the company’s leadership team and key team members, held a “mini conference” on the Gold Coast.

“A great example of this cultural language coming to life was shown in the lead-up to the conference. One of the directors called someone who was pulling together the logistics for the event and said, ‘This is me checking under the hood. Is everything okay with you?’ 

“That was one of the first times that what was written on the wall started being lived out in the hallway.

“I think cultural language is one of the most overlooked opportunities for teams to help design culture. Create phrases you can use that are both meaningful and memorable, to help communicate your culture.”

This is an excerpt from AHRI’s new podcast, ‘Let’s Take This Offline’. Listen to the full episode below. 

A longer version of this article first appeared in the 2024 February/March edition of HRM Magazine.


Need support enhancing your HR capabilities? Take AHRI’s capabilities analysis test to learn where you can enhance your skill set and receive a personalised report outlining what your AHRI learning journey could look like. Learn more here.


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Linda Crawford
Linda Crawford
26 days ago

Whilst I agree with the concept, I find the ending question/statement adversarial -“I’d love to know what your thoughts are on that” perhaps a better way might be seeking to understand WHY they were on their laptop first (deadline, disengagement, making a point etc)

More on HRM

4 types of culture conversations to have with your employees


Learn how to design a culture change program that excites and engages employees.

How would you describe organisational culture? Leadership and culture expert Shane Hatton put this question to 1000 Australian managers when researching for his book Let’s Talk Culture, and only one in 10 could offer a consistent response.

It’s challenging to describe a somewhat nebulous topic like this, especially one that can so easily mean different things to different people. So, Hatton put structure around it.

“Culture always refers to something that’s collective, which means you have to have the buy-in of everyone for it to be a culture. The second element is that culture is made up of both seen and unseen elements,” he says.

This means things such as your organisation’s beliefs, values and assumptions – intangible elements that you can’t see – are observable in tangible things, such as your company’s systems, practices and policies.

So how do you mould those tangible and intangible elements into something that has an impact? First, you focus on getting collective buy-in, says Hatton.

Employees need to feel they are contributing to building a culture; it can’t just be determined at an executive level, or people will struggle to get excited by it.

He suggests starting by gathering employee sentiment about what the culture should look like and, with that information, collectively setting your expectations for one another.

“Most frustrations, disappointments and tensions at work come down to a misalignment of expectations.

“Most of our core expectations about how we show up at work are very consistent. We want the same things: to be treated with respect, to be in an engaging and fun and optimistic environment, and to feel empowered. So this conversation is designed to get the right voices into the room to surface what is unspoken.”

Four ways to have culture conversations

While an expectation conversation is a great place to start, Hatton says culture conversations shouldn’t stop there. 

You need to continue discussing and realigning at various points throughout the journey. For example, you can have:

Aspiration conversations – Talk about how you want your culture to feel to employees, says Hatton.

“Maybe you want to have an innovative culture, or maybe it’s a flexible culture or an optimistic culture.” 

Essentially, you need to determine your organisation’s culture North Star.

Clarification conversations – These are about defining what alignment with this culture looks like.

“Ask the question, ‘As an organisation, if we were to commit to the behaviours that would make the biggest impact and move the needle closer towards those cultural aspirations, what would those be?’”

Then, it’s on the entire team to model those behaviours and hold each other accountable to them, says Hatton.

Commitment conversations – Next, you need to communicate your commitments as a team.

“Consider how to turn this into embedded practices that are part of your everyday conversations,” says Hatton.

Challenge conversations – Once a culture journey is well underway, it’s important to have agreed language and processes for challenging colleagues when they’re not living up to aspirations you set as a team. 

Hatton suggests having challenge conversations as a “course-correction” practice, to avoid things snowballing into larger issues.

“Culture always refers to something that’s collective, which means you have to have the buy-in of everyone for it to be a culture.” – Shane Hatton, author, speaker and culture expert

“Teach people how to do these three things: make an observation, state an impact and ask for input. If you do these three things, you’ll have a very helpful conversation.

“For example, you might have decided as a team that you want a culture where everyone’s voice is heard. And then you’re in a meeting and someone’s sitting there on their laptop the whole time,” he says. “The observation-impact-input conversation might look like saying, ‘Hey, I noticed you were engaged on your laptop for the whole meeting. What that meant was that we didn’t get to hear much of your contribution and, when we got together as a team, we said we wanted a collaborative culture. I’d love to know what your thoughts are on that.’ 

“Now they know the impact their behaviour had on our culture and they’ve got space to share their perspective.”

They might say they’ve been feeling overworked, for example – then, the conversation becomes about how to support them. Or, they might disclose a personal issue that’s stealing their attention.

“All of a sudden, a confronting conversation turns into a completely different and supportive conversation.”

Equally important is celebrating people who are seen to be championing your culture, he says.

“If we were just as intentional about celebrating the good in the people in our teams as we were criticising the bad, we would see an increase in people’s responses, because what gets rewarded gets repeated.”

The power of language in shaping culture

While researching for his book, Hatton found that around a third of people said shared cultural language is a key contributor to a healthy culture.

He put this to the test when working with car hire company SIXT on setting a new culture journey. 

“I think cultural language is one of the most overlooked opportunities for teams to help design culture.” – Shane Hatton, author,  speaker and culture expert

“What they did, which I haven’t seen a lot of, is get intentional about how they communicated the language of their desired culture to the team,” he says.

They worked together to develop what they called an ‘open-road manifesto’ outlining cultural expectations, designed collaboratively with employees.

“Because they’re a car hire company, they use the metaphor of a road trip as a way to articulate their cultural aspirations.”

The manifesto said things like, ‘Customers are our keys – just like keys ignite the engines of our cars, our customers ignite the spirit of our business. They’re the beginning and the destination of all of our work,’ and, ‘We understand how important it is to make time to check under the hood. Just like a thorough car check isn’t only about nuts and bolts, our way of working isn’t only about the tasks and deadlines. It’s about people, thoughts and ideas.’

“The language is quite aspirational, but it’s relevant to their context. That line ‘Our customers are our keys’ was one of their key pieces of cultural language. And their cultural mantra, in a way, was ‘Check under the hood.’”

To launch this manifesto, Hatton, along with the company’s leadership team and key team members, held a “mini conference” on the Gold Coast.

“A great example of this cultural language coming to life was shown in the lead-up to the conference. One of the directors called someone who was pulling together the logistics for the event and said, ‘This is me checking under the hood. Is everything okay with you?’ 

“That was one of the first times that what was written on the wall started being lived out in the hallway.

“I think cultural language is one of the most overlooked opportunities for teams to help design culture. Create phrases you can use that are both meaningful and memorable, to help communicate your culture.”

This is an excerpt from AHRI’s new podcast, ‘Let’s Take This Offline’. Listen to the full episode below. 

A longer version of this article first appeared in the 2024 February/March edition of HRM Magazine.


Need support enhancing your HR capabilities? Take AHRI’s capabilities analysis test to learn where you can enhance your skill set and receive a personalised report outlining what your AHRI learning journey could look like. Learn more here.


Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Linda Crawford
Linda Crawford
26 days ago

Whilst I agree with the concept, I find the ending question/statement adversarial -“I’d love to know what your thoughts are on that” perhaps a better way might be seeking to understand WHY they were on their laptop first (deadline, disengagement, making a point etc)

More on HRM