What's really going on with corporate culture

“You know what the problem with this place is….?”


Photo cred: genius.com

Company culture. It’s one of the invisible hands that internally guides every company towards success or failure. And while it’s desperately important to the life of every company, it’s hard to manage and near impossible to pinpoint one single influence. Which is exactly why we’re all directly responsible for working on it.

Entrepreneur.com has defined “Company Culture” as:

“…a blend of values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time.”

And in a report from the Society of Human Resource Management, they’ve summarized corporate culture as

“…the shared attitudes and mannerisms held by the members of the organization.”

But from a more familiar experiential point of view, it’s really all about that feeling you get.

You know the one. That feeling of walking into a company for the 100th time. After the honeymoon phase is over, and the initial attractiveness of perks, pay and benefits has worn off.

That feeling of excitement. That feeling of enthusiasm or understanding of your mission, purpose or reason for working. It’s the feelings of trust, community and connection you get with your colleagues. It’s your overall feeling of happiness and while definitions might vary from source to source, the one thing that remains consistent is the recognition that it — whatever “it” is — is extremely important.

No matter how you look at it culture directly impacts overall employee happiness, affects productivity and can decrease a company’s turnover rate. Along with a whole slew of additional benefits it ultimately impacts your bottom line. As a result, a few large firms have been investing much more heavily in tracking and optimizing it.

Generally feeling Good — thanks for asking. Photo Cred: MoodApp.mobi

Atlassian uses MoodApp to capture daily mood feedback from their employees while companies like AirBnB and Brooks use TinyPulse to gather anonymous sentiments from their workforce. Meanwhile companies like Google have invested in corporate culture through initiatives such as their famous 20% time program.

We should all take note.

While there may be disagreements on how well they’ve all grasped the concept, the bigger point is they’re investing heavily into trying to figure it out at all. It is important.

The challenge is, we’re still not really sure who’s responsible for it.

Two-Way Street

If you look at most public sentiments, it’s seems to lie on the shoulders of Executive leadership. Jeff Bezos was compelled to respond emphatically to an article portraying a “soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” at Amazon.

Martin Winterkorn was pressured to step down from his post at Volkswagen after their emissions scandal so that the company could “change its corporate culture”.

And John Stumpf, Chairman, President & CEO of Wells Fargo, is very vocal about how “proud” he is to be “the keeper of our company’s culture” at the world’s most valuable bank.

And yes, while the figure heads, the leaders, the co-founders can create huge impact in corporate culture, at the end of the day (or more accurately, at the end of each and every day) it is just as much up to the individual employee to not only embrace a culture, but constantly feed it, define it and direct it.

It Takes a Village

“The whole team participates in improving company culture — not just leaders and HR.” — TinyPulse

Now, while TinyPulse is a company that focuses on helping companies with their culture, theirs is a philosophy that all of us should take to heart.

According to John Coleman’s summary in the Harvard Business Review, a great corporate culture depends upon the qualities and achievements in six key areas:

  1. Corporate Vision & Purpose
  2. Core Values
  3. Operational Practices
  4. People & Recruitment
  5. Defining Narrative
  6. Physical Space

While numbers 1, 6 and part of 5 are largely outside common employee control, the rest are absolutely dependent on full team buy-in and support. That’s at least half the equation.

Leader inspired core values, vision statements and practices are nothing without each individual person embracing and embodying them on a daily basis. And you can recruit the best people and put the smartest guys and gals in a room, but it means nothing unless they’re cohesively performing together, at their optimum levels.

Yes leadership helps, but it’s the individuals on the team that shape their own culture day in and day out.

The Power of Values

We often think our core values are completely defined by founders and leaders and tied closely with the rules, vision statements and mission statements you’ve probably read only once — and almost certainly have forgotten by this point.

But core values define your own internal guidance system. They’re the things that you stand for and the underlying reasons that drive your decisions. They’re how you act on a daily basis. And, whether you’ve defined them or not, they are guiding you.

This is a good thing.

If you’re not just in it for the money (which I’ll assume you’re not), you’ll find you probably gravitate towards companies, leaders and teams that share the same (or similar) core values as you do. It means that you as an individual, have the power to influence your team, which has the power to influence the company. That’s a lot of power.

But as strong as a rock solid foundation for core values can be, it won’t materialize if you don’t live them daily, and if you don’t communicate effectively.

From Communication to Community

One of the most devastating viruses to a cultural immune system is shoddy communication. It comes in many different forms:

  • Gossip
  • Passive aggressiveness (or just straight aggression)
  • Deceit and withholding of information
  • Good old fashioned silence

Think about the circular nature of communication: if it’s bad, nobody is effectively talking about it because nobody is effectively talking about anything. The result is that nothing really gets better.

While executive inspiration, management practices and technology can grease the wheels, the only way to really drive change is to openly communicate and create a space for collaborative feedback. Each time someone refuses to talk behind someone else’s back, or confidently speaks to a workplace concern, or openly articulates the bare facts, you get a tangible improvement in the culture and attitude of a company. But it’s up to the teams and individuals to make this happen.

As a starting road-map, you can apply the concepts of Agile Development Methodologies to just about any team in just about any setting. (If you’re not familiar with Agile Development Methodologies, do take a look.

Culture is nothing without collective energy and shared attitudes. But it’s impossible to collectively do or share anything without proper communication. It’s at the heart of everything. Fortunately, it doesn’t only come from the top down; unfortunately, it’s only as effective as the individual voices contributing. That would be yours. That would be all of ours. We’ll all have to start speaking up to make it work.

Flat — So You Can Make a Dent

The terms we see floating around tech offices should tip it off: “flat”, “open-concept”, “collaborative”. These are not terms and strategies that define a culture — they are structures and opportunities for individuals and their teams to create a culture.

By their very nature, flat companies are at the mercy of the self-organized, self-motivated contributors. This is doubly true in startups.

The reality is, for all aspects of a firm’s conduct, from technical development to human interaction, self organized, self-starting teams shape the interactions. Of course different people have different natural personalities and different environmental preferences, but once we enter a “workforce”, we need to acknowledge that we do have a role in contributing to the greater good of the company. Sometimes we’ll have to adjust accordingly.

Keepers and Creators

John Stumpf refers to himself as the “keeper” of his company’s culture, but from an employee’s perspective, you should appreciate John Coleman’s terminology in reference to the right kind of recruits. The brand and the people at the top may be the keepers or setters or whatever you want to call them. But the rest of the company holds the bulk of the cultural weight. They — or more accurately, all of us — are the “culture carriers”.

Written by

Cahill Puil

Cahill Puil

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