Company Culture is a consequence not a goal

(Note – much of what I’m talking about here has been mentioned in far more detail by others so I might be quoting people without mentioning them, just bear in mind I’m not claiming credit, simply synthesising thoughts)

Culture develops out of human need for safety, companionship and community, its a tribal demonstration of memetic cues for belonging, and serves to create both a sense of belonging and exclusion. You’re part of the tribe if your dress, language and behaviours conform to those of the group, you’re excluded from the group if not. This mechanic is the foundation of culture.

So when we talk about creating company culture, what we’re actually doing is applying a label on these memetic cues, in essence we are rewarding conformity of  certain behaviours and actions and punishing others. In this sense, Culture is a representation of the behaviours we reward and punish. And so what is means is that it doesn’t matter what you SAY your culture is, but rather what behaviours are rewarded and punished. You’ll encounter interesting dilemmas which will test your culture (or rather what you say your culture is) – for example, say your culture is about work-life balance, do you let your staff take time off? Do you incentivise them to NOT do over time? How do you balance the need to deliver (requiring over time) against the culture of work life balance? What if a client urgently needs something on a weekend? What about responding to communications out of office hours? It seems simple, but as you can see there are nuanced dilemmas.

The burning question remains, how do you create a company culture? 

Firstly it starts with the behaviour of leadership, as leaders we need to uphold and set the standard, you could choose to have ‘one rule for us and another rule for them’ but that behaviour will also become part of the culture, subordinate will see that differing standards based on hierarchy is accepted, and naturally act accordingly, any efforts to quash that kind of behaviour will result in accusations of double standards and hypocrisy, further compromising cultural efforts.

Assuming you lead from an authentic position, the next area of focus is to consider how to emphasis rewarding desired behaviours and punishing undesired behaviours, for this, it starts with having a clear codex of rules and their associated punishments, you should make an effort to be transparent and unambiguous here, firstly for culture, but also for liability and related HR issues.

There should also be a clear grievance, whistle blower and audit/review panel process, for smaller companies this might seem excessive, but having something in place, even on paper will saye you headache if you ever have to go to this extreme. Its hard to fix these things after the fact so you want it in place for insurance.

As a heuristic rule, you should really make a show of rewarding good behaviours and really celebrate those that perform in alignment with the desired culture traits. In contrast punishments should be sever, swift and uses sparingly, the threat should be apparent and sufficient enough to deter negative behaviours. Additionally, you should think about how to design the environment and processed to dissuade against negative behaviours, make it inconvenient to go against the culture, for example if you have a culture where people approach you to complain and gossip about other colleagues, expecting you to intervene on their behalf, that will grow into a culture where if ppl want things done they’ll complain and hide behind the boss, so a way to counter that is to simply replay to the complainant – “have you spoken to [the offending party] directly already? If not, do so, and if you still can’t come to a resolution, lets arrange a meeting together and I’ll mediate’ – this response pushes the complainant to confront the issue directly and reduce the gossip or hiding behind the boss, whilst still demonstrating that they will have support if no resolution can be found.

Finally as your culture develops, its important that the context of the culture is cascaded down to other levels, they need to be equality empowered to walk the walk. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *