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Workplace Culture – One Size Does Not Fit All


Which company culture is best for productivity and getting the best out of your people – blind obedience, informed acquiescence or self-governance? Are those really the only choices? Sounds a bit loaded to me, like, “What do you want for Christmas – a piece of coal, a pair of socks or a pony?” Coal and socks might seem old-fashioned but they’re functional and damn handy in the right circumstances. A pony might seem like the obvious choice but ponies aren’t for everyone, they require ongoing investment and often they’ll give you another gift for which you’ll require a shovel.

A recent article in The Economist about corporate culture contrasted the view from the top versus the view from the bottom. Bosses disproportionately perceive their organisations to be self-governing, awash with inspiration and driven by values rather than profits. The study was commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of the book ‘How.’ The basic thrust of this book and surrounding consulting empire is that it’s not what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged. (I cannot prevent myself at this point stressing that the foreword to the book is by one President Bill Clinton which, albeit in an unintentionally ironic way, goes a long way to proving that it really isn’t what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged.)

Seidman talks about the different categories of company culture - from the command-and-control military style of ‘Blind Obedience’ to the less-bad ‘Informed Acquiescence’ with its rules and carrots and sticks to the sleek and shiny ‘Values-Based Self Governance’ resplendent with missions and inspiration. I see his argument visually as that classic ‘Evolution Of Man’ poster with Neanderthals evolving to the modern whatever we are. (Hint: Command-and-control leaders are supposed to be the Neanderthals in this picture.)

Of those surveyed, 43% felt their company was in the ‘Blind Obedience’ category, 54% felt their company was in the ‘Informed Acquiescence’ category and a mere 3% had achieved the supposed ‘Self Governance’ nirvana. I did the maths. That adds up to 100% which means those surveyed were only given three mutually exclusive choices. Are they really mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t it be more useful and realistic if they could co-exist in a managed way?

I’m always a bit wary of surveys that end up in articles. Time Magazine reported one recently declaring that 78% of burglars regularly use social media to choose and / or plan their crimes. So when you ‘check-in’ via FaceBook to that out-of-town resort hotel, you’re declaring to the world that you’re not home and your high definition everythings are unattended. Who are these burglars that they’re surveying!? And even if it did satisfy all the criteria supposedly reputable survey companies say are necessary, maybe the burglars being surveyed have their own motives other than the noble truth? Maybe employees might too? (85% of my friends think I’m being cynical about surveys.)

Are these cultures really mutually exclusive and is one better than the others? The answers are, “No” and, “It depends.”

In his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink writes about the uses and limitations of extrinsic motivations (carrots and sticks.) He says that they have their place and can be very effective in simple, mechanical, programmed or scripted task-oriented roles. Studies repeatedly show positive correlation in those type of activities between incentives and improved performance. You reinforce the behaviours that you think you want and you get more of them but that is not a universal truth. If a task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill”, larger rewards lead to poorer performance. Thinking tasks require thinking people and they are internally motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Carrots and sticks don’t work for those people in those roles.

We need to nurture a culture for these people that allows a range of self-direction, develops them beyond their immediate work itself and plays to people’s inherent need to feel like they’re part of something bigger. Chances are, you have people like this in your workplace as well as those with routine task-oriented roles. The same culture won’t work for both groups. So it seems company cultures are like pants – one size does not fit all and you really can’t operate professionally without them.

Different people in different situations requiring different results at different times need different approaches. Crazy stuff but doesn’t it match your experience of reality in managing people? Fitting the right aspects of culture to the right person at the right time is a major driver of employee engagement.

Engaged employees shine out like diamonds. Karen was one such diamond. I met Karen at the supermarket where she worked as a checkout operator. It wasn’t my usual store but I was running a workshop nearby and popped in afterwards to buy some ingredients for dinner. I plonked them on the conveyor as Karen cheerfully greeted me. She looked at me, looked at my choice of groceries and asked, “Chilli for dinner tonight is it sir?” Before I had time to feel judged that chilli was all she felt I was capable of making, she added, “I always add cloves to mine.” It wasn’t busy so I explained to Karen who I was, what I did and asked her about her choice of conversation topic. She wasn’t on commission from the multinational clove corporations. She didn’t have a command-and-control manager dictating that she must try and upsell cloves. (“Do you want cloves with that?”) In a role that has precious little opportunity for discretion, she exercised discretion and was encouraged to do so. For her, it made the day go faster and amped up ever-so-slightly her job satisfaction. That radiated through to my perception of improved customer service. And, in a little but repeated way, she improved the quality of my life. (Try cloves in your chilli. Seriously, try it.)

I was speaking at a conference of dairy farmers about motivation. (Motivating their people not their cows, although, in this country, if I can develop that methodology, I’ll make a fortune!) Afterwards, one farmer came up to me (let’s call him ‘Barry’) to talk about one particular employee of his. The employee wasn’t a non-performer as such but frustrated Barry due to not improving and not making any effort to move towards achieving the potential Barry felt he had. It may or may not be relevant but the employee’s nickname was ‘Sleepy.’ We discussed the various ideas Barry had tried to little or short-term effect. Barry did say that carrots had worked but the impact had worn off. ‘Self Governance’ wasn’t going to work with a ‘Sleepy’ either, at least not by itself. What then? Perhaps a combination.

The group with the best perspective when talking about views from the top and bottom are those in the middle. I’m currently running a year-long development programme for a group of supervisors who are straddling that middle ground. They occupy that dynamic ‘meat-in-the-sandwich’ zone. I asked this group on their views. They’re a diverse bunch culturally and demographically with a range of supervisory experience (including zero.) Their responses were almost entirely questions – requests for more information. Who is this person we’re talking about? What’s the situation? What are our objectives right now and in the future? Smart people ask good questions. If I had to sum up their responses, I’d say, “It depends.”

I recently MC’d a health and safety conference. One of the speakers was Dr Rod Gutierrez, Principal Psychologist at DuPont. He told me about some research that had been conducted on people entering elevators. (He didn’t tell me why they conducted the research. I regret not asking.) People were covertly filmed entering a standard elevator, not one of those double-doored hospital elevators. Like most people I imagine, when you enter an elevator, you turn, press the button for your floor then stay facing the door you entered through. This proved true of all people – if the elevator was empty. They tested two other scenarios – one with a single occupant already there facing the back of the elevator and one with two occupants already there facing the back of the elevator. With the single weirdo facing the wrong way, most people regarded them strangely and faced the usual way. BUT with two weirdos facing the wrong way, over 80% of elevator entrants joined them in facing the wrong way.

Humans are social norming creatures and it’s likely many of your employees are human. The way things are done around here are the way things are done around here. If you’re a leader in a company that sells goods and services, no doubt you’ve got a marketing person or department that knows all about the value of ‘social proof’ in convincing and influencing customers out there in the market. Social Proof is evidence that others like us (or those we would like to be like) have already taken the road or bought the steak knives we’re considering, including the increasingly pervasive online video testimonials and LinkedIn ‘recommendations.’ The same principles apply to convincing and influencing inside the organisation. My advice to my farmer friend is going to be to try some social proof – to find someone who has been in Sleepy’s slippers, gone on to success, and to buddy them up with Sleepy. Let’s see what happens in combination with some of those carrots that worked in the past. Just don’t pick anyone nicknamed Grumpy...

[First published in 'Employment Today' Nov 2011]