Guest Blog: Culture’s Most Important Ingredient

September 13, 2013 Susan Piver, Guest Blogger

I once worked at a super hip downtown NYC entertainment company as manager of a new division. Before you reached our floor, you could hear the music booming from the lobby. Upon getting off the elevator, you might have wondered if the receptionist was going to take your name or offer you a cocktail. When you walked to your office, you might see a fashion model or the next Jay-Z. We had our own enormous health club, which was probably the most sophisticated workout space below 23rd Street. We had three spa-like treatment rooms and every single employee got a weekly 30-minute massage. When you told people who your employer was, they were jealous. Everyone wanted to come to our parties.

It was also the unhappiest place I ever worked. Despite the trappings, the space was filled with discomfort, condescension, and arrogance. Weekly meetings to discuss new ideas were stiff and agonizing and feedback was based on indeterminate and seemingly capricious measures. No one wanted to take any chances so of course there was no innovation. The gym was empty because no one wanted to risk being seen in less than perfect shape. People were always trying to palm off their massages, because we were too scared to stop working and we just wanted to get out of there.

Scratching the surface of this super luxe, ultra groovy, majorly happening environment, you found the real culture: aggressive and fearful.

While the most interesting, forward-thinking companies place great emphasis on culture, efforts often focus on appearances or management theories rather than on the creation of honest relationships that create actual community.

A quick Google search on “how to create a great corporate culture” reveals these suggestions from the likes of Inc., Forbes, and HBR:

  1. Invite people to throw wadded-up pieces of paper at you when you say something wrong in a meeting.
  2. Work in a big open space where no one has a personal chair or work surface or continually rearrange where people sit.
  3. Post a corporate dream map to inspire people forward.
  4. Instill camaraderie by making people run up and down steps to show them what it is like to do their best.
  5. Know your “wow factor.”
  6. Make it hard for people to get a job there by telling them how much will be expected of them that they’re probably not up to, so when you hire them, they’ll work extra hard to prove themselves.
  7. Work on the beach; take singing lessons together; install a bell to ring when a sale is made; help people get more sleep; have fun games, snacks, and surprising furnishings.

Some of these may be really fantastic ideas, but they won’t ensure you a great culture. At best, they set the stage for great culture to (hopefully) arise and at worst, they are unsustainable gestures meant to game culture rather than create something genuine.

In my experience, when people talk about what a great place their company is, they don’t usually mention fun outings or office design. They don’t even mention money. They talk about how engaged they are. How much they are learning. How proud they are to have a seat at the table. People feel engaged not when they are agreed with, but when they are listened to. People feel engaged when they are acknowledged. Acknowledgement doesn’t mean praising or agreeing. It simply means taking an interest in the other person’s point of view and offering a clear response. If you find it praise-worthy, an interesting conversation can arise. If you find it off-target, a different interesting conversation can happen. If it makes you angry, upset, delighted, or confused—these too can be interesting. Nothing is off limits and people feel trusted and appreciated.

Openness and trust may or may not be your cup of tea—but if you want to innovate, if you want creativity, if you want breakthroughs, you are going to have to develop a taste for them. Without openness and trust, you will only get defensive turf-protection rather than bold new thinking. Openness and trust don’t come from running up and down steps or throwing wadded-up pieces of paper. They come from connecting, person to person, over and over, and sustaining that connection when there is agreement and when there is confusion.

When we say we want to create a flourishing corporate culture, we each have to ask ourselves if this is really what we mean. If “culture” is a device we are employing on the quickest route to success and profits, no problem. Just recognize it for what it is. Hopefully, you will end up with a good reputation and a lot of money.

But if you want to create a workplace that changes people’s lives and the way business is done, that leads to products and services that are mind-numbingly innovative and powerful, culture can’t be a device. It has to be lived. For it to be lived, you’re going to have to open your heart to the people around you and engage both their intelligence and their confusion with equal confidence.

I believe that as we go forward, we will see that success belongs not to the cleverest or the most charismatic but to those who know how to care. To connect . To extend themselves  authentically. Thus your ability to create culture is not so much about what you say or how you design your space. It is about who you are.

Engagement is what leads to a culture that is vital, innovative, and invested in absolute success. It is personal, it is human, and it is genuine. After all, these are the values leading-edge companies espouse for their marketing campaigns and they take root in the way we treat each other. So keep those singing lessons and massages coming, but try to make authentic relationships with the actual humans you work with along the way.

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