Company Culture: It Can’t Be Faked

The end of the year, and the nebulous “holiday” season, is a dependable catalyst for a number of potentially socially awkward formalities – company parties, “fun” activities and gift exchanges, most notably. Mileage for these events may vary wildly depending on the given company’s culture. Now, “culture” is an unusual word, and one of the hardest to define in English, but I think Raymond Williams was right in saying that culture is ordinary.

Culture is what is done every day. For a company, this can mean as little as the shared attitude that employees bring to solving problems that affect all of them, or the cooperative spirit that almost imperceptibly guides their work. Culture isn’t even about being the same location. It definitely isn’t about having certain props in your offices or scheduling formalities (outings, parties, brainstorming meetings) out of a sense of obligation. Of course, colocation and events planning aren’t necessarily bad – in fact, they’re excellent outlets for companies that have already built a strong culture, but they aren’t necessarily the best catalysts for creating that type of culture. Having a joyful party won’t turn a moribund operation into a “fun” company that gets work done efficiently and even casually. That transformation – or even just “formation,” since it can be hard to wrest a company off of its current path without drastic changes in personnel – has to start somewhere else.

In fact, attempts to form company culture via outlets that really have nothing to do with real operations or works can have awkward results. They can make employees feel, initially, like the company is actually one that values a relaxed yet professional atmosphere, yet then shatter their illusions and expectations when next Monday’s trip into the office is a reversion to the same meetings-heavy, distraction-fraught processes. A company that has never truly had fun in solving a tough problem or seeing great employees push out great products (these really should be the goals from day one) may, for example, have some odd ideas about how to instill a “fun” culture after the fact. That company may think that aimless office-to-office interruptions and visitations – seemingly indicative of a casual atmosphere – are a way of creating “fun.” I’ve seen it done, and what it actually does is decrease productivity, since interruptions are anathema to getting work finished.

In these cases, culture isn’t being improved because the actual processes of work are either not being addressed or are being changed in an adverse way. Instead, the best ways to improve culture (if you’re in a situation in which it feels like a change is merited) are:

1. Observe your employees. Walk around the office or talk to them one on one. Don’t think of them as subordinates or someone “in a different division,” i.e. someone who doesn’t affect you. It’s easy to look at, for example, the support staff as employees who have no bearing on what “really” gets done, but nothing could be less true – it’s important for product managers and executives to know what is happening on the front lines. See how they speak on behalf on the company and what they think the company stands for – it may surprise you, and in turn give you inroads to make the company stand for something different and better.

2. Be truly democratic. In small organizations, there exists a golden opportunity to let each employee approach her work in her own optimal way. This is real democracy: each employee in your startup (given that they are good employees who have been carefully hired, of course) voting to help the whole company by contributing in the best way she knows possible. There’s opportunity for coaching, dialogue and counsel, too, but this individualistic spirit is at the heart of all startups, really – if it weren’t, no one would have been crazy enough to start it. By contrast, “fake” democracy is democracy done via overlong/overlarge meetings, in which no one can focus after the first seven minutes, thoughtful criticism is suppressed and weak (albeit outspoken) feedback elevated above all else. Keep your meetings short, if you have them, and trust your employees when you can.

3. Aim for the right kind of culture. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Aim for a productive culture above all else, a culture in which projects move forward, updates are timely and employees feel valued. A culture of fun will, in many cases, arise naturally from a culture of productivity. After all, fun isn’t about boredom or stagnation – it’s about activity and conversation, both instigators and byproducts of productive work. You don’t have to aim for fun at the outset, in other words; fun will take care of itself, if you have a vision that makes sense and a team that is willing to chip in and make it happen.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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