from the blog.

The Way We Do Things

Company Culture has been a topic for years, but it really seems to be in the spotlight today.  As a business coach, one of the biggest pain points I hear from companies I work with is, “I can’t get enough talent!” This seems to be a growing trend in the labor market, compounded by strong growth in job creation and job vacancies in the upper tiers of management left by retiring Boomers. The seemingly obvious solution of “just pay more” does not always seem to work for several reasons.  First, many companies feel unable to pass along the cost of elevated salaries in the form of price increases to their customers. Second, today’s worker are increasingly prioritizing other factors when considering employment options.

Which brings us back to culture.  Many companies are looking to culture as the differentiator that allows them to both recruit and retain the top talent needed to give them an edge over their competition. But what is culture? A common definition I’ve heard is that culture is “the way we do things around here.”  In all honesty, I think this definition falls flat. As a person who is passionate about incorporating social science into business I believe this definition is missing the human element.  It is a definition that seems to be more influenced by the thinking of business consulting and process engineering than psychology.

The way we do things… This definition that seems to suggest that given enough flow charts, checklists, and process maps we could capture the full essence of what a company culture is.  In actuality, I think it is more elusive than that.

I frequently visit the companies I work with.  Every time I do, my experience of interacting with the organizations I visit is unique. At some companies, I am warmly welcomed by a smiling face, a firm handshake, and an offer of coffee or water the moment I walk in the door.  I have visited other companies where I wait in a small vestibule unacknowledged peering through a shaded glass window. Internally, I am debating whether I should knock on the glass or just wait for someone to notice me. In either case, I begin to experience the culture of the company I am visiting the moment I walk in the door.  Sometimes this experience is warm, inviting, validating. Sometimes it is cold, foreboding, and intimidating. In either case, decisions were made based on the values of the organization which shaped the way I experienced the company. In the first, it is possible that a value around hospitality informed decisions which I experienced. In the second, values such as privacy and safety might have been more at play.  All of these are legitimate values, but they create different experiences.

I’d like to offer an alternative definition.  I believe that culture is more accurately described as “The way users of an organizations experience its values.”  Every organization has users and they come in various types.  Employees, owners, contractors, vendors, and customers are some of the common types.  Each of these groups are “users of the organization.” In the business setting, they are often “using” the organization to build and exchange value.  The organization then becomes a conduit for facilitating the types of collaboration between users that allows them to create “more together” than any one user can create alone. As the user interacts with the organization they will experience it, and it is this experience that will form their impression of what the organization’s culture is like. User Experience is critical to a discussion around culture because it is a customer’s experience of your organization that will create long-term loyalty and it is an employee’s experience that will cause them to go or stay. The feelings people experience when interacting with your organization will be the most powerful factor in shaping their perception of your culture.

However, “the way we do things” is not all together disconnected from culture, it is a part of a larger whole.   Another word for “the way we do things” is behavior. Behavior is the connection between an organization values and the people’s experience of those values.  In other words, an organization’s values shape behavior, and then behavior shapes experience.

VALUES —-> BEHAVIOR —-> EXPERIENCE

The exciting implications of this definition of culture is that it is more actionable than the first.   If culture is simply “the way we do things,” one could easily infer that creating a better culture requires one to simply “do things better.”  While this may be true, it is incredibly nebulous and oftentimes frustrating! It is often obvious that we need to do things better, but what does that mean?!?  Improving a user’s experience of our organization is inherently clearer!  We can collect data on an employee’s experience, and we can talk to customers about how they feel regarding the service they received.  The focus of the new definition becomes understanding and improving the way our values shape the experiences of the people who interact with us.    What values are being expressed in the written and unwritten polices of the organization? How are different employees and customers experiencing these policies?  How does their interaction with our company leave them feeling?

The first step of creating a culture is getting curious about how it is being experienced. Expanding our awareness around this creates opportunities to test improvements aimed at improving these experiences. My challenge would be to follow your curiosity with questions and explore your user experience.

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