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Your culture is about how you treat people

5 min read

Your culture is about how you treat people

Culture is challenging to define, but it comes down to how you treat one another. What holds us back from treating one another well?

Over the last few months we’ve been sharing what we learned when we asked 320 people about their level of engagement at work, along with a bunch of other things, such as how employees view executives, and how executives view employees. We published a white paper with Brian Solis on what he called the “Engagement Gap” – the difference between employee and executive views of engagement. Since then, we’ve published discussions on the three of four things that we found most impact employee engagement: respect for leadership, work that matters, and pride in company. Now we’re looking at another major predictor of high employee engagement - a positive view of the corporate culture.

Interestingly, a positive view of culture is the least powerful of the four employee engagement predictors. This could very well be, however, because of the fact that “culture” is not a very well understood idea.

Ask someone in the field what organizational culture is, and they’ll say something like “a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations.” But what does that actually mean? How do you build a positive culture?

You’ve heard the expression that life is what happens while you’re doing something else? Well, so is culture. A company’s culture is a behavioral experience, but it’s also an emotional one. To get that positive culture – the one that makes employees feel engaged and committed, you want that to be a positive emotional experience. Why?

Whether or not you believe the recent New York Times story on the culture at Amazon, you can be certain that parts of it are true. You’ve probably been in situations that echo that nastiness. It’s what I call “management by fear.” It makes you sick, it dulls your creativity, it makes work 99% anxiety and tricks people into stretching themselves far too thin in order to prove something. This is clearly a toxic environment. Did Amazon set out to create a toxic environment? Not likely.

A recent Harvard Business Review article “Why organizations don’t learn” cites a gap similar to the Engagement Gap. They cite the gap between the fact that nearly all companies believe innovation and learning are essential to success, and how few companies are consistently successful in doing that. The learning gap is not about intelligence but about fear of failure and the need to sustain the status quo. This fear begins with the CEO, who passes it down through the ranks. It would seem that fear is the most common barrier to a good culture. It prevents us from treating one another with the respect and compassion that great collaboration and great culture demands.

Why so scared?

We fear failure, we fear our own vulnerabilities. We fear the scorn of others. The classic hierarchical organization is a perfect environment for fear to flourish and grow. It’s a rare and remarkable leader who can overcome these fears and create an environment of learning, listening, common aspirations, and trust.

Can you set out to create a positive culture?

You can set out to create a positive learning environment. You can commit to a set of values that you believe in. You can model the behavior you want to see. You can hire people who share your attitudes and values – as long as you balance that with the need for diversity that is clearly required for real innovation.

But first, you need to be clear-eyed and honest about your intentions. Is it your intention to invest in people because they will drive profitability? Or is it your intention to pursue profitability at the expense of people? Be honest with yourself. The former requires a significant act of faith – that people can and will do great things in the right environment.

Several recent research articles attribute hiring, training, and promotion practices as key drivers of culture. This makes some sense, as it looks to “attitudes and behaviours” which are about people interacting with people. Healthy, Mexican fast food chain, Chipotle, has been hiring for the values they think will make them successful. That is, they don’t hire for skills, they hire for values and attitudes. Then they train. A lot.

Costco has a similar approach. They hire well, pay well, and train, train, train. And, as compared with Walmart, they are vastly more efficient and profitable. This recent Bloomberg article cites Costco’s average hourly wage as $20.89 vs Walmart’s $12.67. They also note some (radical) differences in their stock performance. The pay differential is only one of many differences in the two approaches to employees. The level of training and commitment to those employees is fundamental to building that culture of treating each other well.

Why does training matter? The more capable your people are, and the more deeply they understand the business, the more you can trust their judgment. If you can trust someone’s character (because that’s why you hired them) and trust someone’s judgment (because you’ve given them all the training they need) you can let them use their discretion. You no longer need to micromanage them. You can allow them to think, to serve to commit. You can allow them to do good. Importantly, this also allows you to do good. It’s an act of courage. It’s an act of humility that recognizes the value and potential contribution of others. It’s a mindset that believes you are not the only smart person in the room.

Even more so, all this training and compassion allows employees to treat one another with respect, trust, and compassion. They are confident in one another’s skills. They are respectful, confident, and humble in balance. Training and values can do that.

It would appear that these different approaches also have a very noticeable impact on performance and momentum.







So how can we invest in a positive culture?

  1. Commit to a set of principles or values that drive your decision making after examining the truth and depth of your commitment to them.
  2. Hire and train people in accordance with those values.
  3. Encourage everyone to treat one another well, by treating them well.
  4. Ensure that those people and those values inform every decision.
  5. Fight your fear with courage and humility, and help everyone else do the same.

So the real secret to a great culture is to treat one another well. The secret to treating people well is to think about what your values are and commit to them. The Scylla and Charybdis of positive culture are hypocrisy and fear. They will constantly try to undermine your efforts. It takes ongoing courage, humility, and compassion to help yourself and your team past them.

There are companies whose management will berate and bully people. But there are also companies that have the courage to invest in people and build trust in them and vice versa. We’re delighted to see that the good guys are winning with employees, customers, and the stock market.

Want to bridge the Engagement Gap?

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Deb Lavoy

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