I was so excited to hear psychologist and management expert Adam Grant’s position on company culture. Finally, someone said out loud what I (and many others, let’s be honest) have been thinking: no, your company culture is not actually that unique. Which is not to say it's unimportant... it just may not be what helps you attract and retain a highly engaged and productive workforce.
Those hip perks, flexible work hours, inspiring mantras, and promises of “people first” don’t make you special—everyone else is singing from that same song sheet.
But, don’t lose heart, your company is unique—you just need to shift the focus away from culture and onto matters far more compelling: your people, your habits, and your purpose.
Your people make you unique
This is by far the most engaging argument that anyone can (and should) make regarding what makes one company different from the rest. The combination of people and personalities at your organization exists nowhere else in the world.
But it’s the degree to which you let people be themselves in your workplace that determines how unique you truly are. Mercer’s 2017 Talent Trends report revealed, not surprisingly, that employees “want to be ‘seen’ at work, respected for their individuality and diversity, and rewarded for the unique contributions they make to their organizations as a whole.”
Why does this matter? Building an organization on the principles of authenticity, inclusion, and openness has tremendous positive implications for everything from happiness, productivity, and retention, to the bottom line. And what makes this unique to your organization? The magic that happens when your people show up as themselves simply cannot be reproduced elsewhere.
So, how do you go about unleashing this power? It may seem particularly daunting to do so, especially considering that 61% of employees feel the need to cover up something about themselves on a daily basis in the workplace. To address this problem, Dorie Clark and Christie Smith offer five ways to help employees be themselves. They also advise: “High performing companies recognize that diverse perspectives can strengthen their performance, and that homogeneity can cause blind spots.” Let your people be who they are—and you’ll all be better for it.
How you work together reveals who you are
The special essence of your company is not just about people though. It’s about how each individual combines with others into teams, to get work done. Pixar does this in a way that’s helped build a company and a brand known for its outstanding teamwork and creative process. Not every company can be a Pixar (and neither should they), but it’s inspiring to see how an emphasis on working together has resulted in their blueprint for success.
Another key aspect of working together is how team members communicate with each other. This is often a good indicator of the quality of the working environment—workplaces that tolerate angry outbursts or rudeness are likely more toxic than offices that encourage respect and constructive debate. The way you talk to each other is telling about what it’s like to be part of your organization. And the types of stories that employees tell about your organization, is even more revealing.
Finally, for the best insight on how well your organization works together, look to your leadership practices. I heard a phrase recently: a fish rots from the head down. This means “the problem starts at the top, that the problems, failures, issues, toxicity, etc. in your organization—or any organization—start with the leadership team.” It also means that the effectiveness of your teamwork and communication rests with your leaders. By extension, the experience your employees have, begins with your leaders. Are your leaders helping you stand out or are they pulling you down?
Your purpose makes you different
Like your people, your reason for being is as unique as a fingerprint. Sure, there are many companies that make similar products or offer the same services. But, it’s why you exist that differs—and that’s what matters.
How distinctive your purpose is depends on how effectively you communicate and align your people behind this purpose. Making sure that everyone in your organization understands your "why", and is actively breathing this into every nook and cranny of your organization, is crucial. Step aside culture, it’s purpose that really tells us what you’re made of. And how you come to be known through the eyes of your employees, customers, and other stakeholders, is the product of living your purpose.
Being steadfast in your reason for being is mission critical. But while championing your key differentiator(s), you must remain flexible in your business operations and maintain a growth mindset. According to author and management strategist Jim Collins, “Your core values and purpose, if properly conceived, remain fixed. Everything else—your practices, strategies, structures, systems, policies, and procedures—should be open for change.”
Ironically, the "everything else” category contains some of the elements that have traditionally been looked at as artifacts and drivers of workplace culture. These are the aspects of your business that least represent your culture. Don’t use them to tell the story of why you’re different. Rather, look for inspiration in your purpose.
So, when someone asks what’s unique about your company, don’t default to culture. Talk about your people: every person represents what’s different and special about you. Talk about your habits: the way you work together is as unique as the people who do the work. Talk about your purpose: what you create together is a reflection of why you’re here. Isn’t that far more interesting than reciting platitudes of work-life balance and toeing the line of culture gimmicks?