New Guiding Principles on Workplace Culture

The last year has brought a significantly renewed focus on culture in companies and organizations. Through some combination of bad PR and leadership mis-steps, and nearly every organization thinking about how and when people may return to offices post-pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about how to define culture and how to shape it.

In my own work with clients, creating and maintaining a culture that is thriving, inclusive, and meets the needs of the company’s mission is the single most common set of issues leaders are grappling with today.

Now more than ever, culture isn’t set at the top — it’s determined by employees wanting to be in a place where they feel they have a voice, they can do work that plays to their strengths, and where they feel cared for.

Last year, I shared 10 key questions leaders should ask when evolving their culture. The pandemic and a wholly new way of working created an opportunity — wanted or not — to focus on culture. Since then, the focus on culture has only intensified at just about every organization I’m aware of.

Today, based on a lot of conversations with clients and observing what I’m seeing in the workplace, I’m sharing six guiding principles for how you can think about creating the culture that you want — and that the people you work with want.

First, WHAT do WE mean by ‘culture?’

Culture is really how we work. How do people within a system work together, interact, communicate, and collaborate to achieve the organization’s objectives? It’s not the food, the swag, or just a set of aspirational slogans.

Culture is everybody’s job — not just the job of the HR team or a single leader. Leaders can set expectations, lead by example, and importantly, empower employees to be their best, but it’s set by employees and how we work and interact collectively.

Six New Guiding Culture Principles

  1. Culture is ALL people, ALL the time. As I wrote in Honestly Speaking, everything you do — every email you send, every meeting you lead, every interaction you have — either makes the culture better or makes it worse. Nothing is culturally neutral. It’s about people and our actions. And culture is relevant to consider through the entire employee experience. The way you recruit and interview people is as important to a thriving culture as is how you treat people on Day 1, Day 1000, and in when they are exiting the organization. Those moments signal what you care about and how people feel welcome, safe, and can contribute.
  2. It matters less what you SAY, and more what you DO. In Honestly Speaking one of the main takeaways I share about communication is, “It matters less what you SAY, and more what people HEAR.” A similar formulation works for culture: It matters far less what you SAY, and far MORE what you DO. It’s great to say that you have a culture where people are cared for, where you value diversity and inclusion, where people can advance in their careers regardless of their title or family obligations. But how do employees experience your culture? How do you show people you care about them? How do you create and keep an environment where people feel included? What does your promotion system demonstrate about how people advance in your organization? Without aligning your words and your actions, what people experience rings hollow and undermines your long-term credibility and makes it harder for people to feel they belong and want to contribute in meaningful ways. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently wrote, “The most direct way to figure out what’s valued in a culture isn’t to listen to what people way is important. It’s to pay attention to who gets rewarded and promoted into leadership roles.” Most people experience a culture and the connection between words and outcomes primarily through their direct manager. This is why investing in communication and management training is so important for any company that wants to be effective. Most managers aren’t great, or didn’t become managers because they are good at managing and leading. We all need help here, and so training and focus here is really important, especially because the vast majority of us WANT to get better.
  3. Culture is about Action and Behavior. The best culture values are clearly linked to behaviors. Values won’t matter unless they help guide people to know how to make hard decisions, and how to behave. Values like “be open” are great, but you need to define what you mean by “be open” and how you want people to be open. It might be both in terms of transparency in information-sharing, it might be open in being receptive to different ways of working. Values don’t matter if people don’t understand them or what’s expected of them, or if they don’t feel like they apply to them. Similarly, values like “We are a Family” are not helpful and I’d argue harmful — because work isn’t a family, the incentives and power dynamics are different, and so it strains credibility that the company would treat employees the same way a loving family might. It’s also harmful because it’s not clear what you want people to do or how to behave — just about everybody’s conception of family is different, and not all people even like their families or come from one where they felt supported or safe. Align your values with your mission and to help guide decision-making and collaboration in the best and clearest way possible.
  4. Treat people like adults. This means setting out clear expectations and communicating as openly and reasonably as you can. People can handle bad news or hard news better than you may think, as long as they feel like you are leveling with them, and trust them to be an adult. It’s reasonable to say as a leader that you expect people to act respectfully and to collaborate and not just complain. But treating people like adults who belong at a culture and encouraging them to contribute is a key part of the mindset of any effective leader in a thriving culture today. Rarely does telling people they cannot do something land for your audience like you’re treating them like an adult. In a world where more people speak and interact outside of work the same ways they do inside, leaders need to manage this better rather than just clamping down and expecting it will go away. Charlie Warzel wrote a great, longer piece on this last week, “Executives Don’t Decide if the Company Culture is Good. Employees Do”.
  5. Help people feel cared for — we need to feel safe. If the last year of pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people need a wide berth in how they experience hard situations relating to their health and family. No one person’s situation is the same, on one person’s feelings and comfort level with re-opening and vaccinations are the same. Making sure that you show care and allow for some flexibility in how you return to the office, communicating that you understand some people may feel safer than others, allowing adequate time to listen and hear how people are feeling is really important. In an environment where competition for talent is fierce and many people can go elsewhere — and live elsewhere — any plans for re-opening an office and shifting ways of working should be led first by people feeling safe and feeling cared for, and then understanding the reasoning behind the decisions you make.
  6. Interactions aren’t always about winning. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, Rather, it’s about growing and improving. The most effective managers and leaders elevate the debate. The best leaders focus less on “being right” in the moment and winning the argument, and more on conveying empathy and care. They push people to get better together.

One last point on timing: culture starts before Day One. Your recruiting and interview process, as well as the way you welcome and integrate people into the organization through both formal and informal on-boarding are all critical points around developing and keeping a culture where people feel they are welcome and can do work that plays to their strengths.

The way you communicate and engage with people during an interview process speaks volumes about how you function as an organization and the values that guide how you treat people, and how they will enter the organization, especially in a competitive hiring environment.

How you set people up for success on Day One is really important. This recent Harvard Business Review article has some great ideas on how managers can help new employees feel both welcome and prepared especially in a time of remote work.

What would you add to this list?

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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