Culture could be described as the social operating system of the organization, the underlying environment that shapes social interaction and shapes the emotions involved in the company and its work toward a specific end. Simply put, it’s “the way we do things around here.” The culture of Apple is based on beauty and creating incredible experiences, while the culture at Google is built around personal autonomy and solving the world’s problems. Employees connect around those cultural assumptions. They are a fabric that everyone can grab a piece of, binding the organization together and building the overall Employee Experience.
If your organization were a person, how would you describe it? Conservative? Edgy, with multiple body piercings and tattoos? Compassionate? Hardworking? Fun? Stuffy? How would you evaluate its culture? If we think of organizations as people, we get a clearer idea of the implications of culture. Employees do think of their organizations as organisms (there’s a reason both words share the same Latin root). They do have personalities, needs, and desires. Culture is a potent force that can become a driver of engagement on all levels…if it’s done right. People must connect with that culture, whatever it might be.
Doing Culture Right
How do you do culture right? I’ll try to lend a bit of wisdom to a gigantic topic. First of all, culture depends on narrative and story. What is the narrative of the organization? How did it begin? What were the motivations behind its creation and what are its motivations today? How does it impact the world? How do its customers feel about it? What’s its purpose? Do the employees play a role as custodians of the organizational story?
At one extreme you have Apple. At the other you find companies that develop software offshore. These organizations rely on contract programmers who often dwell in places like Lithuania and Russia. They’ve never met, often don’t speak the same language, and have little shared culture. So, while they’re great at following instructions, there’s no collective story that connects them. These virtual teams will never surpass their instructions, never innovate based on collective inspiration. It’s not in their DNA.
Another factor is pride. Is there pride in the organization? Any organization must have pride in its people, mission, and identity. History and brand also matter to culture. Where has the organization been? How has it lived up to its stated values in the past? What is its brand promise? What words are widely associated with its brand according to surveys of its customers?
The formation of a strong culture also requires the placement of “anchors”—social, intellectual, environmental, inspirational—that serve to consistently communicate the culture to employees. These could be things like Google’s free cafeteria food or 20 percent personal time policy—ever-present features of the office that send a specific message about the nature of the workplace and the employee’s place in it.
Physical signs that reflect the personality of the organization are some of the most powerful anchors. No, we’re not talking about Ping-Pong tables; we’re talking about meaningful pieces of the physical space that make a statement about the nature and character of the workplace and the people who work in it. These are satisfaction elements, not cultural artifacts. In some companies, that might mean edgy urban warehouse design with exposed concrete and corrugated metal. In others, it might mean an open, bullpen-style office where brightly colored couches and “playpens” have replaced cubicles.
Take audio-products maker Skullcandy. A few years back, after they went public, management realized that the company was losing the youthful, streetwise aspects of the culture that got them where they are today. They needed to figure out their new corporate values and determine their narrative, physical environment…and the cultural artifacts that would embody their culture in that environment.
They created an amazing workplace environment based on a hip skate culture, outfitted it with things like functional skate ramps and skateboarding memorabilia, and crafted a culture built around performance-based flexibility, an open environment for collaboration, and lots of incentives. Today, it’s not uncommon to see Skullcandy employees skateboarding around the offices, fully connected to a culture that “gets” who they are. Skullcandy also allows its employees to take a half day off each time it snows more than a few inches—a regular occurrence in its home base, the beautiful mountain town of Park City, Utah.
This doesn’t mean that your company culture has to mimic the hip cultures we just described. In fact, for many organizations, a shift toward similar practices as those we described would be seen as disingenuous—at the very least, out of place and inappropriate. Perhaps most important, culture must be authentic, and employees should be able to play a role in shaping it.
Imagine the clumsiest corporate attempts at creating employee culture you’ve ever heard about—theme cruises, the famous Hawaiian-shirt-day scene from Office Space—and it’s not hard to imagine the internal monologue of employees dealing with management’s attempts to “keep it real.” Lame. Clueless. They just don’t get us at all. Cue the eye roll and knock some points off the engagement score.
If culture is to be a tool for connection, then it can’t be akin to one of those awful faux downtown “entertainment districts” you find in some cities. You know the ones: collections of dining and entertainment venues organized into a streetscape that was designed by committee to look “edgy” and “urban.” They’re awful. They’re the furthest thing from a real urban district like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or LA’s Silverlake. And everyone who goes there knows it.
Inauthentic, canned culture does more harm than having no culture at all. It tells employees that not only does management not understand who you are and what you care about, management would rather hire a consulting firm to come up with a canned “culture plan” than spend time learning who you are and what you care about. Employees aren’t able to connect.
Cultural shifts work because they are based on a deep, personal understanding of what makes employees tick. When you build that kind of cultural environment, connection flourishes.
A Matter of Trust
The final core component of connection is trust. In the most engaged organizations that we work with, trust is deep and mutual. Employees trust management and vice versa. Trust is the currency of connection. It’s a basic building block of culture, because an effective culture is one that evokes thoughts like “I can trust this company to align with my tastes and interests and to represent me, and what I care about, to the larger world.” The organizations in which we all work are proxies for us; saying, “I’m an employee at [insert your company name here]” means something. For culture to be positive, employees need to trust that the organization’s “halo effect” will continue to be something they can be proud of.
Trust is the absolute knowledge that your words reflect your future actions. It’s the unquestioned belief that you will do what you say you will do; the seed for the “band of brothers” feeling that informs the best teams. It’s the unshakable belief that you have my back. It precedes connection. You can’t have connection without it. In looking at Microsoft and its stack-ranking debacle, we’ve already seen what lack of trust can do to an organization.
Because of this, trust requires evidence. I need you to prove to me that I can trust you. Once you prove to me that I can trust you, I will have a connection with you as long as you continue to meet my expectation of trust. So, trust is transactional. You must continue to perform. You have to keep earning it. Sorry, that’s the way it goes.
There is also a difference between earned trust and granted trust. Earned trust is built over time and is based on your experiences and interactions with a person or an organization. If, over time, the other party has given you reason to believe that it will back up its promises with deeds, you will begin to develop trust. Granted trust is given based merely on position or circumstance. It’s not earned. Parents grant trust to an emergency-room physician who’s working on their child. A man accused of a crime grants trust to the public defender assigned to keep him out of prison. We all grant trust to the pilot when we fly in a plane.
What destroys trust? Hypocrisy is one way to do it. Failure to do as you say—to fulfill the promise behind your words with action—is another. The loss of trust due to nonperformance can be incremental. If you drop the ball once, I might let it go. I might still trust you. If you do it more often, I might start to question whether I can trust you or not. Of course, the upshot is that if you have to question whether or not you have trust . . . you don’t have it.
In our surveys, when we’ve asked about trust, the answers often boil down to “I can trust this person to represent my interests, even when I’m not around.” That’s the level of trust that breeds a deep sense of connection, when individuals trust that their fellows will function as a “proxy self” and do what is best not only for themselves but for everyone, for the team.
Another behavior that kills trust is purely self-interested behavior, where people look out for their own interests before that of their colleagues.
Trust is Vital
Trust is vital where people are expected to put team needs above individual needs. Take the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that sportscaster Bob Costas called the worst team on paper ever to play in the World Series. Still, the seemingly overmatched Dodgers beat the superior Oakland Athletics in five games. How? In part, trust. Apart from its outstanding pitching staff, the team was mostly a ragtag collection of wild-eyed role players epitomized by the bench corps known as the Stuntmen. They joked, rode other teams’ players, and played with a reckless abandon that inspired the entire squad.
With a team composed mostly of regular Joes, the Dodgers knew they had to have one another’s backs. They had to trust that if one player failed, another would lift him up. That’s exactly what happened.
Contrast that with the U.S. Olympic basketball team’s shocking loss to Argentina in a semifinal game in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The so called Dream Team was made up of the best players from the NBA, and was expected to cruise to a gold medal. However, they were not a team in the true sense. Players who had never played together before were hastily thrown onto a squad and expected to dominate. They didn’t. They couldn’t.
How do you trust someone you’ve never worked with to have your back? How do you act with confidence that if you run to Point A, your teammate will have the ball there waiting for you? It’s no wonder that Argentina beat the U.S. team, 89–81.
Trust, like connection, needs to be cultivated and grown over time. It’s fragile. That’s why it’s so important to create an ecosystem where trust, culture, communication, and connection can flower.