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Three Lies You Have Been Told About Company Culture

“Designing and building a strong company culture is fundamental to success. But it’s also super hard.”


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Aga Bajer

3 years ago | 6 min read

You’ve probably heard it a million times:

“Designing and building a strong company culture is fundamental to success. But it’s also super hard.”

Sounds about right?

Well, it’s not. It’s a blatant lie. Three lies, to be precise, skillfully rolled into one.

Lie #1: Culture change is the hardest work you will ever do.

Many of the leaders I meet through my work as a culture strategist seem to have resigned themselves to the “fact” that building a healthy culture, or — God forbid! — changing a culture is harder than building a spaceship.

I was at a conference once where the president of a large group of companies was asked what he would do if one of his companies had a toxic culture.

“Frankly speaking, I’d rather sell it than try to fix it.” — he admitted.

While disappointed, I was not surprised. Almost every “guru” writing or speaking on culture depicts it as an unwieldy, starving beast ready to gobble down your strategy — preferably for breakfast.

Here’s an excerpt from an otherwise great book on culture:

“Culture change is the hardest work you will ever do. (…) culture building taxes leaders more than all of their other work combined. It makes budgeting and forecasting and strategic thinking look like middle school playground games.”

No wonder that there aren’t many people on this planet who feel genuinely excited about working on their team culture. Who in their right mind would want to do work that taxes them more than budgeting, forecasting, and strategic thinking, combined? It sounds like death by a thousand cuts.

The truth

My experience with startups and end ups, SMEs, and Fortune 500 companies worldwide taught me that cultivating a healthy, adaptive culture doesn’t have to be torturous or excruciatingly hard. In fact, having fun, experimenting, and co-creating are necessary when it comes to culture work. It’s the only way you can find what needs to be done and to generate the energy and the stamina to stick to what you set out to accomplish.

In fact, working on your culture can be fun.

There, I said it.

(It feels so darn good that I’m willing to risk getting hunted down and burned at the stake for being a culture heretic)

In fact, being playful with your culture, experimenting, and co-creating is necessary. It’s the only way you can find what needs to be done and to generate the energy and the stamina to stick to what you set out to accomplish.

Lie #2: You need to design and build your culture.

The second lie you’ve been told is that you should “design and build your culture”.

In spite of its pervasiveness, it’s an absurd assertion. It’s like saying that you can design and build a tree.

Tree Sculpture by Mark Reed

OK, I suppose technically, you can. You could make a sketch with the initial design, perhaps even build a model out of matches and, I don’t know, parsley leaves? Then you could collect some wood and branches and assemble them into something that resembles a tree. Only that it will be a fake tree. And will never come alive, no matter how much you water it.

The truth

Culture is not the company foosball table, free yoga classes, masterfully crafted values statements, or the annual company off-site. Culture is not an object or an event. You don’t design it, you don’t build it and you don’t make it happen.

Culture is a complex, emergent social phenomenon. It starts forming with a spark of an idea that eventually leads to creating a business. It emerges out of what the founders are passionate about, what they believe to be true, what they value, and what change they want to see in the world.

The initial cultural imprinting happens when there are less than 15 people on the team. Then, the new joiners help evolve the culture over time.

Culture is what you reward, discourage, or prioritize. If you encourage honesty, it will be imprinted into your culture. If you prioritize profits, this will be imprinted in your culture, too.

Culture exists in the spaces between people. It’s co-created by them, their circumstances, and their daily interactions. It’s a by-product of shared learning and meaning-making. It’s what you consistently do on a daily basis as a result of what you hold to be true and important as a group.

So let’s set the record straight once and for all — if there are more than two people in your company, you already have a culture. So you can cross “building a culture” off your to-do list.

Did I hear you say: “Whew!”? I thought so.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t have work to do. You do. It will be the most important work that you’ve ever done for your team and your business.

But if you want to be successful, you need to be smart about how you approach it. You’ll need to work with and within your culture rather than trying to play God and build a brand new one from scratch. Your current culture is always your ally. You just need to figure out how to unleash its power.

Lie #3: You need a strong culture to succeed

I was on-board with this for a long time myself. We’ve all been brain-washed into believing that the only way to succeed is to create a cult-like culture, where everyone has one heart and one mind. But wait! Is having one mind better than having multiple ones? Is homogeneity better than diversity?

Let’s have a look at this widely accepted definition of a strong culture:

“A strong culture is characterized by a very high alignment around shared values, beliefs, and assumptions.”

In other words, people think, feel, and act pretty much the same in a strong culture.

Umm… Sounds dangerously close to groupthink? It’s because it is.

The truth

Unless you want to create a cult, a strong culture is the last thing you need.

Here is why — there’s mounting evidence that companies that hire on cultural fit grow more slowly and that cognitive diversity drives performance and innovation.

To see how cultural homogeneity can stall progress, let’s have a look at what culture really is. Here is my definition:

Culture is a set of implicit expectations around how to think, feel, and behave to FIT IN. These expectations are underpinned by shared beliefs, unwritten rules, and values. They act as the operating system for our brains.

When introduced to a new group, we automatically try to crack the cultural algorithm, looking for cues that will help us figure out what is expected.

  • Do we need to be on time for meetings?
  • Should we publicly share our concerns about decisions that don’t seem right?
  • Do we talk about others behind their backs or confront them openly?
  • Are we usually looking for “why can’t we” or “how can we”?
  • What gets people into trouble around here?
  • What seems to be appreciated and rewarded?

When we think we know what the expectations are, we do our best to meet them. Then, we try to fit in. This behavior is an adaptive response built into our primate brains. We all have an innate desire to belong, and our brains insist that the best way to ensure belonging is by fitting in.

It all makes evolutionary sense. Millions of years ago, when we lived in the wild, being ostracized from our tribe equaled death. Our brains haven’t evolved that much since then, and, as a result, we still feel compelled to follow the cultural norms as if our life depended on it.

There is a huge problem with our innate need to fit in when we work in teams — dissent or merely standing out from the crowd can feel impossible or dangerous for most people. This, in turn, hampers your team’s ability to adapt and evolve. A strong culture basically says:

“IT’S OUR WAY OR THE HIGHWAY!”

This radical approach can kill innovation, agility, diversity, and inclusion and, ultimately, the chances of your whole business to thrive.

Because of how our brains are wired, culture is an incredibly powerful force. We need to handle it with care. Too weak or too strong, and things can go off the rails. What you really need to thrive is not a strong culture, you need the Goldilocks of culture, or what I call a culture that is “ABOVE ZERO”.

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Aga Bajer

I write about how to unlock the power of your company culture. A Culture Strategist + The CultureLab Podcast Host — agabajer.com/podcast


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