How one chooses to dress, the physical distance one keeps from others, speech patterns, where one looks while talking, and similar factors are taken into consideration when identifying what composes a certain culture. In order to distinguish right from wrong, culture provides the individual with boundaries of acceptable behavior. According to one definition, "culture is the set of learned behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population" (Ember & Ember, 402). These accepted behaviors are learned in all cultures (Ember & Ember 20). Specific cultures dictate behaviors for certain environments ranging from massive countries to small organizations. Each culture provides the individual with the comfort of knowing what is expected from him or her, which in turn allows the society or group to function.
Certain theories developed through anthropological research about culture may be applied to developing a culture within an organization. Comprehending what differentiates groups of human beings is useful because such clarity helps to avoid misunderstandings between people. Exposure to anthropological theory [co-cultures, constraints (established through norms), action chains and culture shock/adaptation] can help alleviate some of the misunderstandings that arise from unconscious between people of different cultural groups (Ember & Ember, 11). By recognizing the role that culture has upon the individual as well as the group, the members of a group could apply these principles to create a stable community.
In cultural anthropology, there are theories and terms that explain why people act the way that they do and what actions elicit behavioral responses. These anthropological theories complement the study of communication - how individuals relate to and understand each other. Anthropological theories applied in conjunction with communication theories (previously stated as Kotter & Heskett and Collins & Porras) can help explain what individuals understand and what impacts their behavior. Discussion here will be restricted to a limited number of observed patterns that apply specifically to creating a culture for an organization based on the models set by the Container Store, a national retail chain dealing in storage and organization products. The specific theories that will be addressed are co-cultures, constraints (established through norms), action chains and culture shock/adaptation. These theories, though anthropological in nature, address issues that are relevant in the study of communication.
Review of Literature
Individuals belong to at least one culture, and most people belong to many at once. There are cultures created by delineating factors such as home life, race, gender, sexual preference and religious belief (Ember & Ember, 18). These cultures require a person to adapt their behavior to the group with which they are currently communicating in order to be understood effectively. This phenomenon is referred to as a co-culture. In a co-culture, a person is aware of the rules and the behavior that is expected of them. Grasping the standards and rules of acceptable behavior - what Ember & Ember define as "norms" - is essential for those hoping to establish a co-culture within an organization. Furthermore, the "importance of a norm usually can be judged by how members of a society respond when a norm is violated" (Ember & Ember, 23).
When a norm is violated, the constraints of the culture become visible. The constraints placed on a culture are classified as direct and indirect, with direct constraints being more obvious to the outsider. For example, the mistake of wearing jeans and a T-shirt to a black tie dinner would leave the offending individual feeling awkward and socially isolated, directly and immediately. But an indirect constraint of culture could arise if an individual could not or decided not to speak the language or use the currency of the culture. Of course, there would probably be no immediate punishment or direct implication of guilt for such an offense, but the individual would be unable to function in that culture. Indirectly, the culture's constraints ensure everyone who is a part of a particular culture adheres to a set of behavioral expectations in order to function in that society (Ember & Ember, 23).
The next theory that requires discussion in order to elucidate the organizational example of the Container Store is that of action chains. A set sequence of events in which two or more individuals participate is referred to in anthropology as an action chain (Hall, 141). This sequence of behavior can be anything from the patterns used to greet one another (e.g., the American handshake) to a more complex action chain, such as courtship.
The establishment, through specific communication, of the way an individual within a given culture is supposed to behave socially removes some mystery from what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. When orientating an employee, for example, describing the expected action chains as if the employee is unfamiliar with even the most basic customs will reduce the awkwardness (culture shock) of the first few encounters with that culture.
Through orientation programs, organizations have the ability to greatly reduce or eliminate the culture shock stage by communicating the culture to the employees directly. Culture shock, according to one standard definition, includes "a four-stage model of cultural adjustment. These stages referred to the progression of experiences throughout intercultural interactions. Culture shock occurs in the second stage of adjustment and is characterized by hostility and stereotypes" (Samovar, Porter 401). The shock stems from the unexplained behaviors that are different from the learned behaviors the employees are bringing with them. This shock leads usually to anger, as the individual is frustrated with what they do not understand. To lessen the impact of culture shock in new employees, one business approach is "ignoring tradition and questioning every procedure, determining employees' motivations, redesigning the way work is done, offering opportunities for professional growth and identifying employee needs" (Herman, 1). Throughout the orientation program, there is a strong emphasis on how employees perceive the company as well as how they feel the company perceives them. During the program, the employee learns about and adapts to new jobs, roles, and the culture of the workplace (Klein, Weaver, 1).
Reducing the turnover rate by even a few people could have consequences for an organization's bottom line. The retail industry has a turnover rate of 73.6% for full-time salespeople, 33.6% turnover for store managers and an average orientation of eight hours (Roth, 1). During these eight hours, usually occurring in one day, the employee is supposed to learn and retain all information that the employer feels necessary for the employee to complete their job. The orientation process is commonly seen in the retail industry as one-way communication with the employer presenting the information and expecting it to be absorbed. Thus, there is a growing recognition that "companies...are challenged to develop a program that will accurately communicate the company's culture in an interesting and useful way" (Bridges, Hawkins, Elledge, 1). Throughout orientation, organizations must take care not to overwhelm employees with information, but to introduce them to the company and its culture in understandable segments. The employee should feel that they understand the information presented and the employer should feel the process was worthwhile.
Orientation programs are often treated as an obstacle to the utilization of a newly hired employee. Instead, orientation should be seen as a time for the company to invest in itself and as a basis for fostering teamwork between the employee and the employer. A company that wants to integrate an employee as quickly as possible might use the unsuccessful "fire hose" approach, expecting a new employee to drink from a "fire hose" of company policy in one intense session. This approach leads to overwhelmed employees, frustrated supervisors and, ultimately a loss of money for the company (France, Jarvis 1).
The goal of effective orientation programs is the allowance of an employee's quick integration and success. A successful program (like the one used by the Container Store) produces a knowledgeable employee who is more comfortable in the work environment and thus able to serve the company more effectively. "After completing successful orientation programs," says one source, "companies hope that employees understand the company's values and how their department goals and individual goals support those values, that employees will be more motivated, will take more initiative, and will have greater job satisfaction" (Bridges, Hawkins, Elledge). Orientation should be the time the employee learns what is appropriate behavior in the new environment and how they are expected to act. The orientation period is a powerful influence on an employee's perception of the workplace and the attitudes the employee develop towards their job and the organization. One researcher summarizes the process this way: "During entry into an organization, new comers are desperate for information and are particularly susceptible to influence. Many researchers therefore believe that orientation and training programs designed to socialize newcomers can influence their impressions and attitudes toward the organization and their commitment to it" (Young, Lundberg, 3).
Successful orientation allows the individual to become a part of the organization's culture. In order for employees to feel a part of the company, open communication is essential not just between the managers and their subordinates but also through all aspects of the company. There should also be effective feedback outlets where the employees can feel comfortable letting their superiors know how they feel and where they need more instruction or information. Feedback is the only way that a message sender can be certain that the message was received as intended (Hamilton, 18). Furthermore, "supervisors who encourage their employees to give feedback (to ask questions and make comments) find that feedback improves the accuracy and productivity of both individuals and groups" (Clampitt & Downs, 1983).
The feedback process saves the organization time and money, as mistakes are costly in both areas. According to one source, "communication with employees relates directly to the attitudes that the employees have towards their supervisors as well as the company as a whole. Results reveal that empowerment is an effective managerial control tool in that it significantly affects the behavior and attitudinal dispositions of boundary spanning service employees" (Chebat, Kollias, 1). Those employees who feel they are well informed as to the workings of the company and what responsibilities entail are more satisfied with their work environment than those who are unclear. Also, employees who report higher levels of satisfaction also believe they are able to deliver excellent service (Schmit, Allscheid, 1).
It is important to note that, from a supervising standpoint, management is listed as the primary cause of poor employee attitudes and behaviors (Kinicki, Carson, Bohlander, 9). Common symptoms of poor employees are decreased motivation and performance. Because these employees are less satisfied, less productive, less creative, less involved at work, and are more frequently absent when they perceive that their organization is not committed to them (Kinicki, Carson, Bohlander, 9). Opening the lines of communication between management and the employees allows a more productive company to emerge; conversely, "insufficient communication between management and employees often leads to employee confusion on how to achieve goals although they are aware of what these goals are" (Wah, 1).
Merely describing goals and expecting employees to implement management's plans for success is not productive. Employees have the ability to achieve the goals set, but they need reinforcement and specific tasks to complete before the final goal can be reached. This step-by-step process allows the employee to have a sense of personal power and control over their work, for "an individual without information cannot take responsibility. An individual with information cannot help taking responsibility" (Caggiano, 3).
There are levels of culture that must be understood before attempting to construct one. The "artifact level," as described by Schein, consists of "visible organizational structures and processes, hard to decipher; espoused values, strategies, goals, philosophies, espoused justifications; and basic underlying assumptions, unconscious beliefs and feelings; ultimate source of values and action" (Corporate Culture, Schein 16). While developing or creating a culture, it must be understood that it is almost impossible to ever reach or change the basic underlying assumptions of an individual's artifact level. This ingrained culture level stems from the nurturing and individual perspective. What can be reached are the other two levels, allowing an individual to adapt to a new co-culture and promote the values established within it.
In Kotter and Heskett's study, they found that "to work it's bottom-line magic, a company's culture must be aligned with the demands of the business environment" (Deal, Kennedy 29). This study paved the way for more detailed analyses of the corporate culture environment and how it affects business. Kotter and Heskett also focused on leadership and how strong leaders make the culture both consistent and flexible. According to another set of researchers, "peripheral practices come and go. Core values remain constant. This provides the ability to adapt to changing conditions while still maintaining a strong corporate identity" (Dean, Kennedy, 30).
Kotter and Heskett's results seem to mesh with the vision of the Container Store as well. They argue that it is easy for a company to favor one constituency (shareholders, customers, employees or communities) over another, which results in an unbalanced business culture (Deal, Kennedy 31). They have found that "successful companies constantly monitor key constituencies and make adjustments when any group is not being well served" (Deal, Kennedy 31). In the Container Store, the management holds the core values and founding principles strong as they adapt their corporate culture to fit the nature of the business as it changes. The strength of the business comes from the employees' loyalty and conformity to the standards set by management during orientation.
Twelve years after Kotter and Heskett's work, Collins and Porras published their study examining the link between visionary companies and success. What they found was that "one dollar invested in each of the visionary companies in 1926 would have been worth $6,356 by the end of 1990. In contrast, the same dollar invested in each of the comparison companies in 1926 would have yielded only $955. An investment in the general stock market average over the same period of time would have been worth only $415. Vision pays, as Collins and Porras argue" (Deal, Kennedy 26).
The Container Store has the qualities that make it a prime example of a visionary company. Deal and Kennedy write that a visionary company is an organization where the "founders' long-term visions rather than short-term efforts to exploit specific marketplace opportunities create great companies. Sustaining visions are also the driving force in strong-culture companies" (27). The values specific to the Container Store in this respect will be discussed in the case study.
Being a visionary company does not automatically make an organization successful. The creation - or lack of creation - of a culture makes the difference in the bottom line. Collins and Porras conclude that, "the truly great visionary companies have strong, insular, almost exclusionary cultures. Working for them is like being in the Marines: If you don't shape up quickly, you'll be out on your ear" (Deal, Kennedy 27). So, with a focused vision and a culture that permeates the "very fabric of the organization…everything that the company does," Collins and Porras conclude that companies reporting strong cultures outperform those who do not. "The fit between the company's culture and its business environment was significantly better among the top performers" (Deal, Kennedy 28).
Container Store Case Study
The example of the Container Store, once examined, will show that through innovative and unique training methods and ongoing employee communication they create the co-culture in which employees succeed in their responsibilities as well as with bottom line success for the company. The Container Store's policy, as they state, is to "educate, empower and encourage our employees to use their intuition, expertise and creativity in every aspect of their work. By doing so, we create an environment that fosters personal growth, supports the continuing improvement of our business and achieves an extraordinary level of customer satisfaction and loyalty" (Container Store, 6). The employees are loyal, well informed and understand the goals of the company, which have been explained to them through the careful training introduction of the corporate culture at the Container Store.
The Container Store's executives work to ensure that the company vision is not lost as they have expanded their company from one location in 1978, to over 20 locations in 2001. The key to this growth as stated by CEO and President Kip Tindell is that "[The Container Store] has never has an unreasonable growth plan, but we've always kept an eye on the culture and the wellness of the individuals in the company. That's always been just as important as growing sales" (Executive Profile, ST).
The Container Store reflects what the study by Kotter and Heskett claims in a statement on their website: "The goal has never been to grow for growth's sake. Rather, it is to adhere to a fundamental set of business values, centered around deliberate merchandising, superior customer service and constant employee input" (Container Store website).
Creating culture in the workplace allows the employee to recognize the behaviors that are deemed appropriate by the company and encourages an affiliation with the organization. The more an employee feels tied to their organization, the happier they are with their job, which in turn reflects in job performance, employee loyalty and customer satisfaction (Kinicki, Carson, Bohlander). The process of orienting an employee into the company culture is the first step in establishing a company-specific culture (Klein, Weaver).
At the Container Store, the process of creating culture starts with their unique hiring process. When the management developed a system of recruiting and hiring employees they implemented six Foundation Principles, or key concepts, used to build and maintain the organization they were envisioning. One of those was that "one average person equals three lousy people, one good person equals three average people, and one great person equals three good people" (Container Store). In placing great emphasis on how an employee initially fits into the culture that the Container Store has developed, the part of introducing the employee to the culture can begin. "One of their keys to success is that they hire very well," Berry says. She continues, "It's such a generous place, such a high-trust place, that employees love it. They hire people with the same values as the leaders. That's the cornerstone" ("My Job At The Container Store," Roth, 6).
The co-culture specific to the Container Store is visible not only through the organization's specific policies but also in their way of communicating these policies to the new employees. Some of the policies are easier to adapt to for the new employees (such as the dress code) since it is something that people in all cultures adapt to in new situations. Other policies take some explanation to employees but are specific to the culture of organizations, such as new vocabulary and organizational structure. In this sense, the employees are expecting some direction and are prepared for the adjustment. The differences in the approach that the Container Store takes in terms of organizational structure is that the employees are hired for the position for which they have the greatest passion. Every employee is viewed on the same level and there is no visible hierarchy within the company; according to their own literature, "The Container Store does not post internal openings, since salary is not tied to title" ("The Right Package," Miller, 35).
Another aspect of the co-culture unique to the Container Store is their open communication policy. There is nothing that is kept from the employees, including financial information. Daily sales goals are given to the salespeople in the stores before the start of the day as well as reading the sales totals from the previous day. The information is not limited to just the sales people. Everyone from the delivery truck driver to the CEO has access to the same information: "We share just about everything with our employees…from daily sales to expansion plans. We even distribute financial information" (Karas, 106). The company also refocuses the goals the management has set and communicates these goals to the employees periodically during the year: "Three times a year, the company hosts Staff Meetings. These meetings occur in a two-day session where everyone refocuses on the new goals and strategies for future development. At the end of each meeting, a copious 40-to-50 page booklet is sent to all employees as required reading" ("The Right Package," Miller, 37).
With the organization's policies and philosophies playing such an active role in the orientation of the new employee, it is necessary to note the constraints that are placed in the employee through the established norms. As discussed, constraints are present in a culture (or co-culture) when norms are violated. In the Container Store there are obvious constraints, such as the dress code detailed by the management, and the more subtle constraints of attitudes that employees are expected to possess. Although management meets most of these constraints are met by management through the hiring process, an employee is instructed what to do and the attitude with which they complete their tasks is up to them. The constraint found here is disapproval by supervisors, other employees, and eventually the customer if the attitude is not what they were expecting. At the Container Store, the expectation is that the employee will not violate the norms because they have been sufficiently informed through orientation not to deviate from the established norms.
The action chains used at the Container Store are similar to those utilized in the retail industry, though with a few key differences. The retail industry must sell items in order to keep in the black, and selling items is a complicated science: "Customers decide in the first eight seconds if they feel comfortable enough to buy in a store. And four out of eight consumers form an opinion of who you are by the exterior appearance of your store" (Raphel, 1). It is essential, therefore, that the customer is comfortable in the store. At the Container Store, the employees greet each customer and ask what they are looking for (Container Store). This customer contact allows them to follow Foundation Principle 2, the "man-in-the-desert" principle: "Don't just give him a glass of water, get him food, a place to sleep, and let him call his family" (Container Store). Other action chains are the way in which employees receive information through morning meetings and company newsletters, the organizational hierarchy, and the hiring processes. All of these build the culture specific to the Container Store by highlighting the values of the company as well as ensuring the employee is committed to achieving the same goals that the management implements.
Employees at the Container Store go through over 235 hours of orientation complete with one-on-one training to greatly reduce the amount of culture shock that they endure. Training occurs within the first year of employment and exposes the employee to all aspects of the culture. According to the Container Store, "Training is crucial to our success, and not just an investment in staff, but a way to maintain standards" (Nicksin, 22). In this time, the employees are able to see and understand all areas of the organization and, by experiencing the culture through introduction, the employees can establish for themselves the appropriate behaviors. "First time employees spend the first week completing a weeklong orientation to the Container Store's philosophies, products, and interrelation of positions throughout the company, covering various topics" (Container Store). After that, "every employee spends time in training unloading delivery trucks and stocking shelves. The company has found that by having salespeople perform all the tasks in the store, from sweeping up to cleaning bathrooms, they tend to take more pride in the company" ("Creating A Better Salesforce", Dupree, 2). When the employees have finished training within the various departments in the company, "Super Sales Trainers (SSTs) are in stores daily working one-on-one with employees during store hours to ensure exceptional service for customers" (Container Store).
The Container Store has been successful in their orientation techniques, a fact proven through their employee satisfaction and loyalty, retention rates, as well as expansion and sales. Through their standard-setting programs, they have raised the industry standard and called attention to the importance of orientation and its relation to the success of the company.
The organization has outstanding results to show from their orientation program. The employees are happy and content at their jobs and feel like they belong to the culture of the organization. The privately held company is the "first company in Fortune magazine's list history to be consecutively selected for the #1 position of being the best company to work for [2000 & 2001]" (Container Store). Not only are the employees happy to be there, but the company turnover is nearly a third of the industry average for salespeople and one sixth for managers. "Turnover is 28% of full-time salespeople a year, versus the industry average of 73.6%, and just 5.3% of its store managers, compared with the industry's 33.6%" ("My Job At The Container Store," Roth, 1).
In regards to employees, the store has an extremely high applicant pool; for example, 15,570 people once applied for 380 jobs. This abundance of applicants combined with the retention figures shows that the store consistently outperforms the industry standards by large margins. The sales for the Container Store have also grown in scale with the company. In 1999, the company recorded $214 million in sales. In 2000 this increased to roughly $240 million with projected sales of $272.5 million for 2001 (Container Store website). By and large the employees are satisfied with their jobs, and it is reflected in the finances as well as the attitudes of the workers.
In a study on employee loyalty, McGarvey (1998) suggests seven steps to ensuring loyal employees. Treat your people well, let workers see the results of their labors, hire smart, go the extra mile - and farther - for your employees, give people challenging responsibilities, train your employees and establish conflict resolution mechanisms ("Loyal Following: Bringing Employee Loyalty Back From The Dead", McGarvey, 2). All of these things the Container Store does, and excels at implementing.
The process of creating a culture specific to organizations will allow employees to identify with the corporation and their peers. Studies, such as Bell 2000, show that "after fives years of research, Harvard Business School has established a quantifiable set of relationships that directly link profit and growth not only with customer loyalty and satisfaction, but also to employee loyalty and involvement" (Bell, 1). Employee loyalties therefore increase customer loyalty and, through orientation, employees are empowered. Employee job satisfaction "significantly affects the behavior and attitudinal dispositions of boundary spanning service employees" (Chebat, Kollias, 1). Since employees are loyal to companies that provide them with jobs that they enjoy, the root of profitability can be traced to employee orientation. The bottom line is that, "From a pragmatic point of view, corporate executives are no longer content to view human resource departments as an overhead expense. Instead, they legitimately desire human resource activities and programs to make a measurable contribution to both employee attitudes and organizational effectiveness" (Kinicki, Carson, Bohlander, 8).
What is left undetermined is why more companies are not following suit in the advances in training and orientation made by the Container Store. Although there has been great advancement in the area of employee orientation/communication, there is a significant difference in what the communications professionals find to be true and what the business executives choose to implement in their organizations. By looking at the success that the Container Store has experienced with their creation of corporate culture and the consistency with which it is implemented combined with the performance they have seen in regards to retention and profitability, it seems that at least the executives at the Container Store are utilizing the information presented through communications research.
Still, Tindell and Boone (Chairman and CEO of the Container Store, respectively) are regarded as mavericks in the field. Because Tindell and Boone's unorthodox policies are still making waves in the industry, it will take years and probably taking their company public to inspire policy changing in other organizations. Another point to consider is the lack of information on the bottom line effectiveness of competent employee orientation and the establishment of the organization's culture on the employee. Although we can and have seen indirect effects such as employee retention, customer loyalty and satisfaction as well as employee satisfaction, it is hard to put numbers on those kinds of statistics. In order to produce a significant change in the industries, it is essential to show bottom line effectiveness to warrant an investment of time and money.
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