Can Culture Be as Simple as Just 19 Words?

Article main image
Apr 17, 2018

It’s well understood that culture can make or break a workplace. Understanding what “culture” means, however, is a whole other matter.

As a working concept, culture can’t be easily defined or measured. Merriam-Webster offers six different definitions (and even named its Word of the Year in 2014 after it received the highest number of web lookups). Culture construal seems to run the gamut, from the practical (A “set of living relationships working toward a shared goal” –  Daniel Coyle) to the whimsical (“Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don’t” –  Lord Raglan). Ask the students and alumni of Texas A&M about their culture, and they’ll tell you it’s downright incomprehensible: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

So much for a culture of clarity.

No matter what you call it, here’s an easy way to spot it. It comes down to these 19 words:

“I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

Here’s why:

Several years ago, a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia analyzed two different sets of teacher feedback given to students. One stack of marked-up papers featured generic statements like “good job” or “nice work.” But another batch came with something more: the 19-word encouragement scrawled on a Post-It note.

Researchers found that this small gesture paid big returns, especially for students of color: 72% voluntarily revised their papers, compared to just 17% who just received the generic feedback message. Not only that, but those students also received better overall grades on their work.

Amazingly, students who demonstrated these gains did so without receiving any specific directions for improvement. The notes contained no tips or strategies, no editorial guidance or revision goals. Their magical effect on student outcomes had almost nothing to do with the message itself, but the meaning behind it:

I believe you can do this.

Students who received the notes understood that they mattered and that the work they did mattered. Their willingness to adapt and improve shows the power of caring and commitment, and how the combination of both can elevate the way we choose to see our people and the way our people choose to see themselves.

If this sentiment can transform the learning culture in schools, imagine how it might change the performance culture at work.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that too many workplace cultures are bereft of deep connection. A study published in 2011 showed that loneliness at work is growing at an alarming rate, leading to troubling effects on people’s job performance and potential, including lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting a current job within six months. There’s even evidence showing that the feeling of being isolated can provoke the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.

How do you solve a loneliness epidemic? By replacing it with a culture of caring.

When leaders manage inclusively, making an effort to draw people together through a virtuous mix of caring, but challenging directives, they engineer a culture of belonging and trust. Matching high expectations with generous support, these leaders make it possible for people to excel together. People begin to feel good about their role and see their work as critical to the success of the organization as a whole. Fueled by this sense of purpose and passion, the organization becomes more effective, more open to ideas, and more creative. People are more likely to share ideas, pass along information, and manage their levels of stress.

All of this feel-good energy isn’t just good for morale – it’s also a boon to the bottom line. In one study, friendship groups – teams that reported a high level of connection, both within and beyond their work space – outperformed groups with only slight levels of connection on tasks that required  significant amounts of decision-making and motor planning. The reason: Enhanced levels of group commitment and cooperation boosted their performance outcomes.

Which brings us back to that thorny meaning of “culture.” It comes from the Latin cultus, meaning “care.” Somewhere in all that ambiguity, there’s an unmistakable truth: Great cultures are marked by great caring. And that, perhaps, is all we need to know: If you care a lot about culture, start by caring a lot more.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!