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Compensation Cafe: What is the Right Culture for You?

By Derek Irvine

Recognize This! – Figuring out the right culture means balancing high-level goals alongside assumptions about how best to achieve those goals.

One of the few remaining areas of competitive advantage available to businesses is unleashing the potential of human performance at work. More often than not, doing so requires establishing a strong culture that reinforces employees’ collective ability to improve themselves and do their best work.

Underlying assumptions can have a big influence on what that culture ends up looking like, however, as I write in a recent post on Compensation Cafe. One recent trend is the deliberately developmental organization, or DDO, which carries the assumption that workers are motivated to conceal weakness; openly critical yet constructive practices are then implemented to encourage continuous improvement on weaknesses that are identified.

A culture of recognition, on the other hand, assumes workers are motivated to bring their entire selves to work and strive for their best work. This brings up an interesting question of whether these two types of culture, and their underlying assumptions, are mutually exclusive.

At a basic level, both approaches share some important strengths, even if the path to arrive at them do not always align. As I write in the full post, both cultures tend to focus on 3 principles:

Emphasize the importance of aligning the best of individual employees behind business success, either through continuous improvement or appreciating behaviors that reflects a company’s core values.
Operate in a way that occurs in the natural flow of everyday work, rather than as a more infrequent, exclusive, or external event (think either of classroom-based professional development programs or the classic recognition dinner events).
Speak to the important role that peers have in sustaining the culture, either by pointing out the weakness of their coworkers that need to be strengthened (in a DDO) or by catching the great work that their colleagues are already doing (in a culture of recognition).

While each type of culture may ultimately be successful in certain settings, it is nevertheless important to carefully understand the underlying fit between assumptions and reality when considering the newest trends or ideas, as well as the behavioral reactions we might expect from employees.

So if employees do have a weakness that needs to be developed, should we assume they are motivated to conceal it and it must be called out publicly in order to improve? Or can we assume that a culture exists where employees can seek out the help of their colleagues, and where employees can be recognized for both seeking out and providing help to others? The latter seems to be a more effective pathway for striving to develop human potential.

What type of culture would work best in your organization, and which would motivate you to do your best work?