Three Observations on Company Culture
Based on a decade of experience navigating the corporate world, Burning Man, and San Francisco’s underground warehouse communities.
- Culture is a product of the container that you hold for your people.
Is the container you’re holding one in which well-being is valued? Is it a container in which there is safety and support to say things that need to be said?
Is it a container that feels nourishing and safe for women? Men? People of color? People of varying sexual orientations? Non-drinkers? Can your employees be themselves at work?
Is it a container in which egos and intimidation fly unchecked? Where health and self-care get thrown under the bus?
Is it a container that feels designed to squeeze every last possible drop of juice from its’ inhabitants?
Your employees can tell!
Talented people gravitate towards nourishing containers. Assholes find weak ones that they can exploit.
2. Culture is a direct reflection of leadership.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, and the containers that we create are reflections of that.
Where leadership has blind spots or trauma, they set an example that unconsciously sets the tone for the container.
These dynamics are particularly difficult for leadership to see because…well, that’s how blind spots and trauma work. And they have enormous network effects.
Ego in leadership is incredibly destructive for this reason — the stories and projections and blind spots holding a leader’s worldview together can permeate the whole company if the container isn’t one in which it’s safe to ask penetrating questions.
And, the degree to which the leadership trusts or mistrusts their employees sets the baseline level of trust throughout the organization.
3. Culture is an art as much as a science.
Systems are important for culture. It’s important to have containers for catharsis, flows of communication, rituals, rhythms, guiding principles.
It’s also important to be in touch with what’s going on and dance with it. Humans are complex, living beings — groups of humans, more so.
Like any living being — culture needs love! People need love!
If you try to automate culture and detach from it, it will start to fester and you will become an outsider to it.
If you give it love and nourishment and care, it will blossom and grow and love you back.
Care should be a guiding light for culture — you are a steward of the lives and experiences of the people that have chosen to pour their time and talent and life force into your company.
Treat that like the tremendous honor that it is, and your employees will show up with their gifts and their brilliance. Then it’s a collaborative effort to align those with your mission.
Treat it like an obligation (“I pay you. You work.”), and your employees will reciprocate. They will leave their joy at home where it’s safe, and give you the uninspired output you’re asking for.
The bad news is — in my view, a lot of the corporate world is in abysmal shape in terms of their culture. Which is reflected in how most people feel about their professional lives — according to a 2018 poll by Gallup, more than 66% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged with their jobs.
If you see that and think “people are lazy”, you’re not paying attention.
Ping pong tables and LaCroix and motivational posters are not culture — they’re nice, but they’re meaningless distractions compared to putting care into the deeper aspects of the experience that you’re creating for your employees.
The good news is — this means that there is enormous opportunity to improve virtually every aspect of your business — and outpace your competition — and have more fun doing so — if you’re willing to put some effort and love and care into your company’s culture.
If you’d like some reflections and support in evolving your company’s culture, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.