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The Truth About Company Culture

For organizations today, the buzzword of all buzzwords is “culture”. Answers to questions like, what makes a strong work culture? And, how do we create or maintain our company culture? are of extreme interest to managers and leaders who are trying to stay relevant in today’s competitive job climate. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), an organization’s culture consists of shared beliefs and values that shape perceptions, behavior and understanding. An effective company culture is a key contributor to an organization’s ability to be successful. However, company culture is often not something that can be clearly defined, which can make it difficult to communicate, sustain, or change.

The idea of “corporate culture” has been around since the seventies, but much of the newfound energy and focus around culture is attributed to the rise of millennials entering the workforce. This is due primarily to the belief that millennials are the generation that is motivated by more than just their benefits packages. This is supported by evidence from studies like the 2016 Fidelity Investments Evaluate a Job Offer Study that reported millennials were willing to take an average pay cut of $7,600 if they had opportunities for career development, purposeful work, or better company culture. Because of trends like these, organizations are striving to create unique cultures that attract, and more importantly, retain talented individuals that will contribute to their visions.

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Interestingly enough, Dr. Adam Grant, a recognized organizational psychologist, has conducted his own studies on company culture and has surprising news: “Your company’s culture isn’t unique”. On an episode of Kara Swisher’s podcast Recode Decode, he shares how over time he has discovered that these “unique” company cultures actually all boil down to the same important elements: is the culture safe, is it just and fair, and do I have a sense of control? If you take the time to read through some of the reviews from employees of Comparably’s Best Company Culture winners of 2018, you’ll begin to see some of the obvious common themes that Grant is talking about.

These commonalities aren’t inherently a bad thing, but Grant believes that if organizations believe their company cultures are more unique than they really are, it can become a problem because it “closes the door to learning”. We see this happening with organizations that are looking to hire new employees for culture fit. At first glance, this may seem like a good hiring practice. If we can evaluate someone and determine how aligned they are with our current culture, then we should be able to add people to our team who naturally fit with our team and its purpose. If we hire people who don’t fit the mold, then it can lead to unnecessary problems.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s hard to make these assessments objective or measurable – which means that they can perpetuate bias in our talent acquisition efforts. What happens, according to Grant, is that we fall into a trap of continuing to hire people who are just like us. His concerns are voiced by other professionals who believe that these practices contribute to groupthink in organizations and ultimately stifle their growth and development.

Instead, there is a movement towards considering cultural contribution. This is the idea that employees should add to our culture instead of simply fitting into it. This asks recruiters and hiring managers to think about what is missing in our organizations and who can help to fill those gaps. This mindset encourages us to seek diversity as a way to encourage change and innovation. Granted, not all potential hires will effectively add to our organizations. But, if we view people who don’t “fit” as headaches, then we may in fact have serious deficits in our teams and structures. The culture we should be working to build becomes one that celebrates differences, encourages disagreement, and has a healthy relationship with failure. These things, when well managed (this is a very important caveat), result in better work outcomes, higher satisfaction, and improved relationships.

So, if those are the things that make a strong company culture, the next question is how can we build and maintain that kind of culture in our organizations and teams? Try some of these strategies to get started:

  • Establish and uphold groundrules – Many organizations believe their codes of conduct are synonymous with groundrules. While codes of conduct outline standards of acceptable behavior, our groundrules are agreements we make as a group that communicate how we actually want to work together. These help to establish the norms and expectations we hope for our corporate culture.
  • Prioritize your group dynamic – As organizations we will always have “to-do” lists. When we think about our group dynamic we are thinking about our “to-be” list. What are our strengths? What are our opportunities for growth? What do we want to be as a team? How can we actively work to understand each other and work better together? Dedicating time and resources to team development is the best way to answer these questions.
  • Foster trust – We need to trust others and also be worthy of trust. Trust allows us to create quality relationships while also enabling things to get done. We can foster trust by really getting to know our teammates, by being transparent, by being fair and consistent, and by recognizing and appreciating work well done.
  • Work to motivate your team – We can make sure our teams are motivated and satisfied with meaningful offers. Consider Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory as a way to identify and meet the needs of your team.
  • Encourage disagreement – Conflict doesn’t have to be counterproductive. We can support disagreement in our organizations with practices that result in impactful and influential conversations and actions.
  • Get comfortable with vulnerability – Creativity and innovation thrive in places where we feel safe to share and safe to make mistakes. Vulnerability gives us courage and courage drives progress and change.
  • Create a healthy system for feedback – Most organizations fall into the “feedback fallacy” or the false belief that they have created a culture that values feedback. But performance reviews just don’t make the cut. We need to update our feedback practices so that they support the kind of engagement and growth we want from our team.

Creating culture takes time and maintaining culture takes intentionality. It requires humility and the willingness to change, the coordinated efforts of leadership, trust in the process, and an eagerness to learn. Whether or not our company cultures are distinctly “unique”, we can create places to work that people are excited to be a part of, where our teams are involved and engaged, and individuals feel like they have been invested in to reach their greatest potential.  

*Leadership Lesson*

Choose one of the bullet points above and click on the link to read more about how you can incorporate that practice into your company culture!

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is the Program Coordinator for Leadership Inspirations and spends most of her time helping to create meaningful programming and content. She got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student, and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Education. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts.