Lessons from the Fascinating World of Workplace Culture

Given my fairly recent transition to a small non-profit association from a large for-profit entity, and the inevitable comparisons between the new and the old, I've been thinking quite a bit about workplace culture.

I can’t think of any topic that has so many differing and strong opinions attached to it, or frankly more intricacies. A healthy culture is something that nearly everyone agrees is critical to success, yet few, if any, have truly figured out. There are many wonderful treatises on culture, yet the application of the vast array of theories and frameworks available is so often rendered nearly useless in practice, as the mix of human beings and their personalities at every organization is truly unique. 

While I'm not a culture expert by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to share with you a few of the lessons I’ve learned (such as they are) from my own experiences. I'd love to hear your thoughts about culture in the comments as well:

Culture Cannot Be Completely Separated from Strategy and Structure

If you looked at documentation as to why talented people did not succeed in their roles and either left or were let go, regardless of organization size, history or the myriad other factors that differentiate companies from each other, you would most likely find commentary referencing that employees were highly skilled as individual contributors but weak on an interpersonal level. In these situations, the responsibility is placed primarily on the employee, regardless of whether or not they achieved results, for failing to "fit in."

While the concept of "cultural fit" itself is under fire because of the conscious or unconscious bias it can create in organizations, I think that the greatest error here is in separating "hard skills" like adherence to business results, creating quality work product and general acumen from the softer items that fall under the nebulous banner of workplace culture. In fact, the two are often intertwined. Yes, some people are much more adept than others at conforming to a set culture, just as others are going to be more skilled at the production aspects of a job. I believe, however, that organizations that focus too heavily on building a healthy culture at the detriment of structure and strategy can still end up losing their most talented people.

For example, let's say an organization brings in a results-oriented, successful project manager to join your team and it turns out that, in addition to being the best project manager the organization has ever had, she's a joy to work with and loves the company culture. As talented people do, she'll pick up projects very quickly, and will eventually begin to reach the limit of projects she can reasonably handle.

At that point, she'll ask company leaders for clarity around the organization's overall vision and its most critical goals and objectives, as this will help her prioritize her projects and give her something to aim for. If the answer is, "Well, we are all very busy, and we haven't really planned that far ahead, but you're doing great," then your new project manager may begin to think that, if every project is an equally urgent priority, then maybe no amount of work will ever be enough. Without clarity or at least a common purpose to hold onto, her work will suffer, and burnout will become a very real possibility. Based on the places I’ve been and folks I’ve spoken to in a variety of jobs and industries, this scenario is not specific to any one business or workplace, and seems to be fairly universal.

Thus, capacity, a tactical, trackable and structure-driven metric, provides us with a useful benchmark for how culture and structure are inextricably intertwined. If people are drowning under the weight of work, this will likely cause first communication and eventually culture to suffer - the two are not mutually exclusive, although they may seem to be at first look.

My favorite analogy for this comes from my ragtag 8th Grade Odyssey of the Mind Team. Our project for the year was to create a balsa wood structure that could stand up under the weight of as many 45-pound plates as possible as part of a contest with teams from other area schools. Our team struggled with the project (my engineering skills were lackluster then, and have not improved), and our structure was crushed under the weight of the first plate.

The lessons that stuck with me are, first, the folly of judging a book by its cover, as some of the teams with better engineers and dynamics created tiny structures that could, incredibly, withstand 7 plates. The second, more potent lesson is that, in the end, every structure eventually cracked under the weight of 8 or more plates. You get the point - there is a limit to how much a person can do, and a "happy" culture may only delay the inevitable.

Cultural Change Requires More Than The "Why" Question

Like so many before me, I fell in love with Simon Sinek's TED Talk "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," and continue to be inspired on a weekly by his posts on LinkedIn and other platforms. I discussed the dearth of critical thinking and thinkers in the workplace in my last post, and I believe that the ripple effect from Simon's concept is that there are more people than ever who have the courage to ask "Why?" when it comes to the way organizations do things, and especially when it comes to company culture.

The world can always use more people willing to ask the "Why" question, but I believe that, to change something unwieldy and amorphous like culture requires a bigger push. After asking "Why are we doing it like this?," the next, and equally important question must be, "What would happen if we tried it like this?" The second question not only identifies the problem, but proposes at least the beginning of a solution. I've found that, eventually, most people in a culture can agree on the problems, but few have the time, wherewithal or fortitude to propose a solution.

The follow-up also plays upon one thing that modern marketers do very well: test, test and test again. Culture is a living, breathing thing - it's not just a set of values on the wall, or a laminated mission statement, although those tactics can be important and useful. It's something that changes and morphs over time, and like any relationship between human beings, it will include high and low points. To paraphrase Edmond Dantes' birthday toast to Albert (one of my favorite movie moments of all time), it's what we do when those storms come that truly make us who we are, and it's no different with workplace culture.

The critical component here is that the organization, starting with leadership, supports the agility, adjustment and inevitable failures inherent in a culture of testing over a culture defined by never making mistakes (or at least the external facade of perfection). You'll hear many leaders today talk about how they tell their teams to "fail fast and often," but these are often the same leaders that melt down and lash out when a failure actually occurs.

Because we fear failure, I like to make the point that a culture of testing treats a success in a similar way that it treats failure. The spectrum of "failure" is massive, and I would guess that most workplace failures fall somewhere between catastrophic and incidental. Success is similar, in that it lives on a spectrum as well, and can be defined differently by nearly everyone in an organization (and outside of it, for that matter).

A culture of testing requires adjustments to ensure lessons are learned and the same mistakes are not made twice when a "failure" occurs, but these same steps must be taken even when a project or concept worked well. A commitment to constant improvement and the ability to learn from experience, then, are more important than whether an initiative "succeeded" or "failed."

The people willing to ask both questions likely constitute what folks are now terming a "culture contribution," instead of a "culture fit." In other words, what's missing from our culture that we can add to make us better? Check out this video from the great Adam Grant on the important difference between the two. Delivering Happiness by Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh is also a fun, quick read, and shows what a career built around failing fast can actually look like in practice.

Cultural Improvement Requires Constant Attention and Intention

There is, of course, no single "right" answer to what makes a workplace culturally healthy. I do believe, however, that the cultures that are most successful (determined by whether people enjoy working there) are those that are initially, constantly and consistently intentional about putting culture theories into practice.

One of my favorite examples of intentional culture occurred during a tour at a forward-thinking tech company. Our tour guide was showing us around the ridiculously impressive structure, and the first thing that hit me was how much money and time the company had spent up front to create a place that would make their employees feel so comfortable that they would not want to leave. Down to each specific detail, while I'm certain the company in question has an extremely savvy accounting team, they had not pinched any pennies in building their experience.

At the perfect moment, the tour guide showed this to be true in explaining the exposed piping on the ceiling of the building. On the day the building was opened, it was announced that the company had reached 1% of the world’s population. While an incredible accomplishment in and of itself, the leader of the company, in his address to staff, said that the benchmark meant that the job was now 1% done, and that the ceiling would not be finished as a reminder of the work they had left to do.

It’s a seemingly small element in the grand scheme of things, but to me, this story shows the level of thought and focus necessary to build and sustain a healthy culture. The combination of every small detail like this one can create an experience that cannot be matched by competitors.

You'll hear leaders say that their "unique culture" is why their organizations are successful, and while this may be true in certain respects, the implication is often that their job is done. It seems to me that successful leaders are those who can admit that their organization's culture will never be perfect, and who can be comfortable with committing a lifetime (or their tenure with the company) toward constantly working to improve it.


This is my heavy-handed cultural metaphor image.

This is my heavy-handed cultural metaphor image.