Six Ways Executives Shaped the Culture of Their Organization

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May 25, 2018

This article is excerpted from Tom’s recent book, The Stress-Reduction Pyramid: A Guide to Managing the Greatest Threat to Employee Health and Productivity. Part 1, Entitled Do You Have a Culture of Stress? Here’s How to Find Out published Thursday.)


Imagine you work in a small high-tech company, and this is what the CEO says about his ideal workplace culture: “Fire people who are not workaholics. Come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. Go work at the post office or Starbucks if you want balance in your life.” Working here would almost certainly drive up the stress you feel (and probably carry over to your home life, too).

Organizational culture can transmit a heavy load of potential stressors, even if the chief executive isn’t suggesting only workaholics need apply.

How executives create culture

Company executives have at their disposal an array of actions they can use to embed and transmit organizational culture. By using these tools, they mold workplace cultures that lie at some point on the spectrum between fulfilling and stress-intensive. Here is a look at how leaders at six different organizations shaped their culture

By where they place their attention

When Marissa Mayer took over as CEO at Yahoo in 2012, she turned her attention to the cultural convention that permitted employees to work from home. She ordered everyone at Yahoo to come back into the office. Her motive, she said, was to foster teamwork and increase innovation: “People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together… I don’t know that it’s necessarily the right stance for industry or the world at large. We weren’t trying to make a broader commentary on working styles or working from home. We were just saying, ‘Look, it was the right thing for us in that moment.’”

By what they say

Senior management at Yelp, the consumer internet company, took a high-profile step to establish boundaries around work time expectations. The head of human resources and the COO created an all-employee video blog to explain the company’s philosophy to managers. They made some important points: don’t schedule meetings on weekends; ask people to plan ahead for vacations and then don’t expect them to check in while away; encourage employees to use holiday time to focus on family and friends; don’t require people to come to work sick and jeopardize the team’s health; and let people know it’s okay to stay home with a sick family member. The culture message: Calibrate your work so you can both hustle on the job and enjoy well-deserved, stress-reducing time off.

By what they do

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini overhauled his own health regimen and then reshaped Aetna’s culture through a series of nontraditional programs. Bertolini had nearly been killed in a skiing accident. To manage persistent pain without conventional painkillers, he turned to alternative remedies, including yoga. He found the approach helpful, and has introduced yoga and meditation classes into Aetna’s culture. If it worked for him, he reasoned, it might help employees with their own stress-related health concerns.

By their analytical focus

The culture at Google – creative, demanding, fun, supportive – requires significant investment in facilities and services at the Googleplex. Google management also commits resources to helping employees balance their work and private lives and maintain their productivity in a challenging environment. For example, Google’s People Operations department (called POPS) spent time and money to uncover the reasons for disproportionate turnover among young women. The study results led to a better maternity leave policy (five months off at full pay and benefits) and reducing the pressure on new mothers to return to work. The effort and cost paid off: turnover among new mothers dropped by 50%. The message from the head of the POPS analytics group was this: “What we try to do is bring the same level of rigor to people decisions that we do to engineering decisions.”

By who they promote

Apple’s founder Steve Jobs was known as a brilliant and innovative but stress-producing boss. He was passionate but sometimes impatient, prone to publicly berating employees. In his last days, however, he hand-picked a successor who embraced many of his positive values but few of his abrasive behaviors. Tim Cook, who followed Jobs as CEO after 16 years with Apple, is calm where Jobs was mercurial, approachable where Jobs was aloof, open where Jobs was secretive. He is also operations-oriented, known more for managing inventory and supply chain logistics than for generating revolutionary new ideas. Jobs’s choice of Cook sent clear cultural messages: hard work and excellence remained an expectation (reportedly, Cook often emails employees at 4:30 a.m.). Preserving the culture did not require a Steve Jobs clone, a more collaborative leadership style could work in a famously innovation-oriented company. In a robust culture like Apple’s, leadership should come from inside. Cook’s ascension to the top job preserved central organizational values and gave employees a sense of both cultural continuity and evolution.

By what they track and reward

At Wells Fargo Bank, an espoused value was, “We appreciate and serve our customers.” The underlying reality, however, went more like this: “Do whatever it takes to hit your cross-selling goals, and score a bonus, by pushing multiple products to customers, whether they need those products or not.” Managers told employees to open accounts for customers who didn’t qualify, as part of a high-pressure, high-quota sales approach. Resistance often resulted in termination or forced resignation, and many employees took stress leave, some reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Culture matters

Each example demonstrates the power of enterprise leaders to shape company culture. Their decisions and actions determine whether the culture tilts toward a people focus or a work focus, and therefore whether employees’ work experience is more or less stressful, more or less fulfilling. Business strategy may direct competitive tactics and initiatives, but culture determines the quality of execution and, to a large extent, the health of the organization and its people. As business legend Peter Drucker may have said (the source of the quote is disputed), “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”