th-2Organizations have a readily observable culture. I was once interviewing for a position with a large successful practice. As soon as I walked in, I knew I didn’t want to work there. It was extremely quiet. I didn’t see another person as I walked to the waiting area. It was decorated like an old-school men’s club with deep leather sofas and chairs. My feet didn’t reach the floor if I sat back in the seat of the chair. I could tell it wasn’t the kind of place that would have the right energy for me. Just as it does when you visit a foreign nation, culture shows up in lots of places in an organization; from the greetings, customs, furniture, dress code, social atmosphere to the comfort foods.

In our work, we often ask focus groups of employees to describe their workplace organization as if it were a person. Participants usually have no trouble coming up with adjectives and there is typically high agreement. Often the culture can be traced back to the style and values of the senior leaders. But everyone who is part of a culture has influence. When it comes to culture, we are shaped by it but also participate in creating and maintaining it. Here are a few (highly stereotyped!) examples of the kind of cultures we see out there.

Sugar & Spice and Everything Nice

People are overwhelmingly positive. No one ever disagrees and no one can remember anyone ever getting fired, though people who don’t fit in seem to disappear. There are often no performance reviews, because (though no one would admit it) performance doesn’t matter. People describe their co-workers as family. Like a dysfunctional family, however, there can be lots of passive aggressiveness, favoritism and gossip. If you dare to challenge anyone in this kind of setting, you will be perceived as mean-spirited. People will be very friendly and smiley but talk about you behind your back.


Hard-Driving Manly Men

Competition is the game. Winning is the goal. Employees brag about their “numbers” and how many hours they put in. No one stays home sick, EVER. On vacation these guys play war games or summit K2. (Everest is for tourists.) Even the women can do lots of pull-ups. You can bet that 10% of the workforce will be fired every year — just to keep people on their toes. If you are mellow and laid back in this kind of place, you will get run over on your way to the bathroom.

The City Morgue

The quiet descends over you like a down quilt. All communication occurs in emails. People whisper if they speak at all. Someone can be missing for weeks and no one notices. People tiptoe in and out. They eat their brown-bag lunches at their desks. One wouldn’t dare pack carrots or apples because the crunch would draw attention to them. No one is sure what the CEO looks like. The last time they heard him or her speak was September 11, 2001 when an announcement was made that everyone should quietly leave the building in order to go home and watch TV. If you stay too long, your tongue may atrophy.

Of course, these are exaggerations. Clearly we wouldn’t want to work in these kinds of settings. None of them would bring out the best in their employees. But what kind of an organizational culture is good for employees? And importantly, how does it affect the success of the organization?

Here are some practices that contribute to building a healthy, productive culture:

  1. Communication is open and transparent.
  2. Your perspective matters and you are expected to speak up.
  3. You are encouraged to develop to your full potential.
  4. You know where you stand because you get meaningful, regular performance reviews.
  5. If you have a weakness, you will get the support that you need to address it.
  6. Your work has meaning and purpose, because you see how it contributes to the success of the organization.

How does your work culture rate? How do you fit into the culture of your organization? Is it a good match?


One Response to Workplace Culture

  1. I totally agree and have found that all the hard work on strategic direction can be wiped out by one bad culture day or week. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to your other posts. John