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Mar 9, 2022

Whenever I ask HR leaders to describe their ideal company culture, the sorts of responses I tend to hear back are ones we’re all extremely familiar with – things like wanting organisations “where everyone feels personally valued”; or “people truly enjoy their colleagues”; or “lots of friendships”; “open doors”; “no hierarchy” and “everyone’s part of the same team.”

These characteristics represent what’s known as a ‘social culture,’ (habits, values and behaviors adopted by one or more social formations), and according to the thousands who’ve taken our own What’s Your Organizational Culture? test, it’s the most desired type of culture out there.

But as warm and friendly as social culture may sound, it’s not quite as nice as it seems. In fact for five very good reasons, having such a culture actually carries risks:

1) Plenty of staff don’t want/need it:

There are quite a few people who simply don’t want a warm and friendly culture. Think of a highly ambitious salesperson, who thrives in highly competitive environments; or an introverted engineer who prefers analytics, rules, and processes to interpersonal chitchat. Trying to foster more interpersonal connections amongst these sorts of people is unlikely to generate much excitement and may even cause resentment.

2) It fuels toxic positivity:

Friendlier cultures are more susceptible to what’s increasingly being called ‘toxic positivity’. Pretending everything’s fine when they’re not; muzzling uncomfortable conversations, or minimizing or denying negative feelings are all signs of toxic positivity. Contrast this to Leadership IQ’s own study, The Risks Of Ignoring Employee Feedback, when we discovered it’s only when employees believe their company shares, and is open about its challenges, that they’re ten times more likely to recommend it as a great employer. The fact is, while every organization has its share of problems, breakdowns, and conflicts, a culture that is too focused on preserving interpersonal harmony may bury these problems.

3) It stifles feedback:

In an overly cozy culture, people may not receive the critical feedback they need. In the above study, we also discovered that around nine out of ten managers have avoided giving constructive feedback to an employee. The problem with having a warm and friendly relationship with someone is that it can feel pretty jarring for managers to directly criticize the other. After all; criticism stings. There are myriad reasons for avoiding giving feedback, but one of the biggest is a fear of damaging the relationship. And yet this is so misguided. Feedback is an essential tool for growth and improvement. We know that when a leader gives constructive feedback they are almost eight times more likely to recommend their company as a great employer.

4) It creates inertia:

Being warm and friendly sometimes means moving more slowly too. It requires time, for example, to create interpersonal warmth and emotional connections in meetings. That’s not to say HRDs shouldn’t try to invest the time. But with meeting fatigue and intense workloads, desire for more bonding might not always fly.

5) There’s issues around not living these values:

There are serious costs if companies/leaders act contrary to a professed cultural value. In a friendly culture – where executives may refer to staff as comprising a family of people – firings and layoffs carry a far higher emotional toll. Compare this to hierarchical or hyper-competitive cultures, for example, which are far less likely to be seen as hypocritical when they terminate or furlough employees. In these firms not many tears tend to be shed when low performers get fired. It’s almost seen as expected level of churn.

Culture is a game of chess – you need to think ahead

None of the above dangers are intended as arguments against having or building a warm and friendly culture. Let us not forget, that while there are the dangers outlined, there are just as many (if not more), benefits.

But, what these dangers should serve as, however, are reminders that there are many choices and consequences when it comes to developing a company’s culture. Culture building is a game of chess, not checkers. We’ve got to think several steps ahead and understand the ripple effects and risks of our choices.




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