Creating and Protecting Team Culture: A Worthwhile Fight
Despite too much coffee, here I will attempt to riff about company culture, because many organizations talk about it like it’s a thing they have, something plugged into an outlet that employees can admire. I’ve heard it before, and I’ve seen companies use their culture as a recruiting tool, a benefit to a prospective employee, as if it’s this thing, this uniform, everyone wears.
The truth is, company culture is what is. It’s not what you made this one time at startup camp. It’s not your ping pong table in your lunch room. It’s not the exercise balls you give employees instead of a chair. It’s none of those things.
Every day, it’s what is.
I think looking at company culture as a thing you possess as a company asset is a wrong-headed view of what culture is all about. It’s not a bullet point. It’s a document with hundreds of changing, invisible bullet points.
In my experience, it goes like this: every day you get up and show up to make your company what it is. Some days you succeed, other days everyone is pissed about working overtime on the big project. At that point, culture, as you’d like to articulate it to the new hire, falls into the background.
But that’s okay.
Like raising a child, nurturing your organization or team’s culture is an every day job.
When I talk to folks, it always strikes me how many businesses look at their culture as a product of something they have, or a derivative result of a group strong personalities that comprise much of the team or office experience.
Culture is neither. If only it were so simple.
To channel Tyler Durden, you are not your break room’s Xbox 360.
You are not the shiny reflective sum of your company’s strongest personalities.
You are a constant symbol of your attitudes, decisions, people, victories, defeats, communication, problem-solving, forward-looking vision, humor, honesty, integrity and whimsy.
In other words, your culture arises out of dozens of ethereal elements that you can’t put your finger on and change every single day.
Just like a raising a child isn’t as simple as giving her food, shelter, an education and a few toys. And parenting a child isn’t about how you do on a given day; it’s about how you do every day, as a function of time.
So why do companies still tout culture as an asset that uniformly benefits every single employee all the time?
Culture is not a feature, and if someone starts selling you on a company culture, immediately ask them what they’re doing to protect it.
Because protection is key. It’s a hard, everyday vigil. Just like a child can slip away from a parent, culture can escape a team or organization faster than you can imagine.
How does culture get compromised?
- You lose a leader, a few key employees, or if hard times diminish the values that were present in the fat times, culture is often the first victim. You wake up one day to realize that what you thought you ‘built’ left you with as much ease as it was created.
- Mixed messages. If you tout work/life balance and then have your management team responding to emails at all hours and on weekends, what’s the employee to believe? That you support work/life balance or that if he doesn’t hop on email at 1 AM Sunday morning, he’ll be a laggard?
- Billboard-level ethics. If you claim that you do the right thing, then do it. The moment your employees see you not doing the right thing, the rabbit hole digs itself quickly. If you’re using integrity as a marketing slogan, what else are you saying that you don’t believe?
- An allowance to let toxic employees exist and flourish. Get enough poison pills, no amount of preventative cultural medicine will offset them.
- A failure to understand that even if you do have a good culture, you still have problems. I’d bet the vast majority of employees in good-culture companies complain about very much the same issues as those from poor-culture companies. Having ‘culture’ in your mission statement isn’t an inoculation against employee dissatisfaction. Don’t pretend it is.
There are myriad other ways, but I hope the point is clear: culture is a delicate fabric. It’s not a result of a certain singular behavior, it’s certainly not a thing you have, nor is it the annual company trip you take where everyone has drinks and does lousy Springsteen karaoke.
It’s what is in your company or team. Every day. Like parenting, culture doesn’t take time off.
When you do, you fall behind. It’s that simple.
Fight the fight, and realize protecting culture is a constant, vigilant, imperfect battle. And that’s OK. Just like a single report card or soccer game doesn’t make a child, there’s no singular measure of culture quality.
Companies and teams who have good culture understand this.
By way of a parting link, take a look at the Valve employee handbook [PDF] and marvel at the organization’s amazing flatness. Also notice the wording and voice: it’s a bellwether of how Valve operates and communicates as a company.
Have a good weekend, everyone.
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