What Comes First — A Meaningful Workplace or a Strong Culture?

Mar 17, 2014

There’s a virtual cornucopia of so-called “culture decks ” finding its way across the web today. These glitzy slide shows present the values that supposedly drive each respective company’s workforce.

A quick scan of these decks shows that many of the companies are mimicking another.

They are using clever language to make things sound really sexy. And of course they employ design that makes your mouth water.

It takes more than a motivational poster

These cultural displays are all well and good, however one has to question them on several levels:

  • To what extent are they honest, credible and accurate reflections of what it’s like to work for that company?
  • To what extent are they simply a “wish list” of senior management?
  • To what extent do they smack of “marketing” and therefore run against one’s natural resistance to being sold an idea?

Cultures aren’t built through PowerPoints, PDFs, or posters in the coffee room.

I’m not suggesting that culture decks and motivational posters have no place in the world, or that employees who read one may not actually embrace some of the ideas within it.

No. I’m just questioning the role of a culture deck and the audiences for which it is intended.

A chicken and egg question

My sense is that the role is to create consensus among the leadership team, and therefore, the audience is the people who sit in the C-Suite and the HR department, as well as those who work at the agency that created the culture deck.

The reason I point this out is that I believe that simply telling people what a set of values are, and suggesting that they live to them, is a far cry from helping people change the way they think, feel, and act within the workplace.

So, here’s the big question: Which comes first — A strong corporate culture, or a meaningful workplace?

But let’s back up for a moment and define what we mean by “culture.”

Simply put, culture is what happens when the boss leaves the room.

In this sense, culture is a function of leadership. It comes about based on the behavior of the leadership and how that affects the followers.

Tips for building a smart culture

So the questions are, when the boss leaves the room, how has she left the people feeling? What purpose and ambition did she set?

Did she ask the audience to “buy” an idea, or to “buy into” and ideal? Did she talk “to” the group or “with” the group? Did she speak out from what her followers are looking to do in their lives, or did she merely explain what she needed them to do?

It is better to think of “culture” as the way of behaving in the way that you want and need to be a successful business. The task then is to think about how you’re going to make that happen in ways that matter to employees and get results for your business.

Here are some tips to help do that:

  • Rethink — Don’t assume the tools of leadership are the tools of the employee.
  • Be helpful — Don’t merely tell people what they should believe; show them how to be better in their work.
  • Make it relevant — Don’t tell people why this is important to the company or its bottom line, tell them why it is important to them as human beings.
  • Ask, don’t demand — Don’t issue a set of rules; present a noble ambition that people can aspire to, and readily act upon.
  • Walk, don’t just talk — Don’t think of creating a corporate culture as a communications job. See it as a leadership task that will take your followers to higher levels of productivity and gratification. Make your daily practices the examples your employees use to build the culture you desire.

Show employees how to do it

Start with the goal of creating a truly meaningful workplace, a place where values aren’t just known, but lived and practiced every day. A place that helps people feel full of energy on Monday mornings, and leaves them feeling they’ve done another week of worthwhile work on the drive home Friday evening.

In other words, start taking the steps toward the corporate culture that fills you with hope and energy. Do that, but fundamentally changing the attitudes beliefs and behaviors of the people who will make your brand and business successful is critical.

In short, don’t tell people to be “authentic.” Show them how they can behave in ways and embrace attitudes that evoke feelings of trust, belief, and credibility.

The net result will be a more “authentic” culture, that will be realized not through the “push” mentality of communications, but a “pull” mentality based on empathy, purpose, and feelings.

You might want to start out by reading The Meaningful Workplace.

A version of this first appeared on the Emotivator bl0g. 

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