The Seeds of a Great Company Culture

Recently, we talked about some of the day-to-day events in a company culture that’s headed in a bad direction. Now, it’s time to examine some of the positive day-to-day practices that send a company’s culture in the right direction.

They’re simple things that individuals can improve at—which means that one person can set an example and influence the team to build a healthy culture. In most organizations, though, employees could be terrible at them without it occurring to anybody. When I’m looking for long-term cultural health, I’m looking for three practices in the team’s day to day interactions.

Teamwork

Three practices that signal an excellent company culture:

1. Solicitation

Everyone wants their higher-ups to listen to their ideas and concerns. But companies can do even better than this. I want to know, do the people above me in the company hierarchy seek out my opinion on the decisions that will affect me? Will I, as an engineer, get to weigh in on how hard it is to build a feature? When my boss is deciding which projects we should take on, is he looking for my input?

Notice what I said: do they seek out my opinion on the decisions that will affect me? Not ‘decisions that they think I have the experience and authority to help make.’ Not ‘decisions where they’d like to hear my thoughts, because we’re buddies.’ Not ‘decisions I can help with because I’m smart.’ Those kinds of indicators disproportionately favor loud, confident employees, especially those who have curried favor with the boss. It’s a great way to tip the balance of influence toward people who yak based on their unfounded assumptions first, and then ask questions later. The group willing to do that, by the way, usually excludes a lot of women and people of color who have historically been asked to provide more rigorous justification for their decisions in the workplace than their peers.

But decisions don’t only affect those people. They affect a larger group—including the quieter, less assumptive members of the staff. These people are less likely to yell their unsolicited opinions across the room—which means that, to harvest those opinions, their superiors have to solicit them. But when leaders do this, they find that these people have often thought about their opinions, weighed alternatives, and brought real, relevant experience to bear on their recommendations. So managers and directors collect a bigger and more diverse pool of ideas—but they also collect better ideas.

Also when leaders solicit employee opinions, employees can perform their jobs with confidence, with less fear that stuff is happening behind their backs at the company. This results in fewer gossips, rumors, and lies floating around among your staff.

2. Attribution

When I know my coworkers are good at giving me credit for when I help them solve problems, I am more willing to help them when we are alone in a room together. Heck, I’m going to help them as often as I can—because when I help them, they make me look good!

But what about the alternative? We talked about this when we discussed indicators of a company culture destined for struggle:

The thing is, how is your DudeBro going to treat my idea when they mention in an all-hands meeting that the problem is solved? Are they going to a) say “I was struggling with X, but thanks to Chelsea’s help with a solution, we have now fixed it?” Or are they going to b) say “Yeah, I fixed it!” or c) misattribute the solution to some other DudeBro on the team? If I think they are going to choose b or c, I am not going to share my idea with them unless I have vocal witnesses around who will go to bat for me when they screw up the attribution on my idea. I have coworkers who I know to be excellent at attribution, and I will put down whatever I’m doing at any time to help them resolve challenges. If I’m alone in a room with a DudeBro? I’m not sharing. How many good ideas has your company lost over this?

What if someone accepts my help and then “forgets” or doesn’t bother to acknowledge that help when the problem is solved? I don’t want to share my ideas with them. Employees who are used to being misattributed are making this calculation, and they’re holding onto their best ideas because of it. So the better the team becomes at attribution, the more people will collaborate, and the more ideas will be shared—which is great for the company’s future.

3. Substantive Disagreement

Team members disagree. We want that disagreement: it provokes thoughtful discussions that help us make better decisions. But if we’re not good at disagreeing, then we try to avoid the awkward situation of an argument by not speaking up. Or, if we want to speak up but we don’t want disagreement, we only bring people to the table who agree with what we already think. When this happens at the director level, the resulting groupthink loses the company a lot of opportunities. So, bottom line, we want to welcome disagreement.

How do teams get good at disagreement? By making sure to trace how they came to their conclusions, so there’s something to talk about if those conclusions differ. Let’s use a hiring evaluation as an example: Four people are in a room deciding whether to hire their latest interviewee, Robyn. On one end of the spectrum, everyone could just go around and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Robyn. If you say yes and I say no, the decision to hire Robyn is now my judgment against yours, particularly if we both feel strongly about it. That can get personal faster than it should. The problem is that we went too fast: we all started at the end, with our conclusions, so that’s all we have on the table to discuss.

What if, instead, we each started with our facts, then traced the path we took to reach our conclusions? Let’s go back to the decision about whether to hire Robyn. The first person might say “Well, I asked Robyn this question, and this was Robyn’s answer. Then I asked this question, and Robyn said this. I interpret that to mean that Robyn understands X, but does not have a lot of experience with Y. So we need to decide if it is important to us that this position be filled by someone who understands Y.” Now we have a topic to talk about—the importance of Y—instead of “I liked Robyn and you didn’t and my judgment is better than yours.” In this model, it is possible for people to draw completely different conclusions and both bring important points to the table that aren’t directly at odds with one another. This kind of discussion is much more comfortable than disorganized disagreement, so the team is more willing to express disagreement with one another and less likely to take disagreements personally.

In Conclusion

We want to build—and work in—good company cultures. But how do we find the seeds of good culture? We can look at the day-to-day activities of the team. Do higher-ups solicit the opinions of their subordinates on decisions that affect them? Do teammates make a point of attributing coworkers who helped them accomplish goals? Do team members trace how they reached their conclusions, so disagreements produce substantive discussions that no one takes personally? If all three of these things are in place, then the team is on track to have the transparent and collaborative qualities that produce a healthy company culture in the long term.

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