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Sypnotic | A company's corporate culture is best defined and identified by these 4 elements

A Company’s Corporate Culture is Best Defined and Identified By These 4 Elements

A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by… talent, maybe, as everyone tends to believe? Or perhaps is it identified by mandatory corporate fun? Even better – is it identified by how many benefits you throw at your employees, by the 5 values you slapped on your website and forgot about, or by that Employee Value Proposition your team came up with using no foundation to create it?

If you’re good at reading tone, the answer if “of course not.”

If company culture was something you can feel-good your way through with wishy-washy statements and boatloads of benefits, every company would be Google and the Tech industry wouldn’t be at the leading edge of building exciting groups.

As I’ve covered in the article “How Company Culture Affects Employee Motivation”, the main ingredient of a successful culture is human nature and knowing how to leverage it to reduce friction between members, and to create an environment where people complete each other’s sentences and think like one mind.

But let’s take it one step deeper, and add something extra at the end for those who already read that article and are looking for a new piece of information – perhaps one that saves your post-M&A organization from becoming a cultural unbecoming, or one that makes sure you don’t end up like Boeing.

Pixar A company's corporate culture is best defined and identified by these 4 elements

A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by its PURPOSE

Motivational speakers are not famous because the internet made them so. The internet just gave them a way to amplify a message the market was already hungry for – that message is, at its core, one of finding your purpose. Now, that’s a big word and I am more of the Myron Golden school of thought, whereby you don’t find your purpose but rather discover it. That is, however, a different conversation. This conversation is about drawing a line between the group and the individual.

Much like the individual, the group has a mind. A collective consciousness of sorts where people delegate their thinking to the majority. However, just like the individual, the group needs a sense of direction. Which leads us to the foregone conclusion that a company’s culture is best defined and identified by purpose.

So, what is “purpose”?
Purpose is, at its core, a function of meaning and impact. And now you might be thinking that this is about making people feel like their job has more to it than just sitting behind a screen or doing hard physical work, but that’s not exactly what I’m pointing at – even though it does matter, and it is called Brand Purpose.

What I’m pointing out is a difference in state. An implied transformation that treasures the company’s history, the current state of the organization, and where it is going: You will find purpose in the gap between where the group is at now, and where it is going next.

Purpose is what a group of people feel when they are working together towards filling the gap between the present and the future. That shared destination has to leverage the company’s history: Imagine your company like a small country. Now take a look at the Pixar offices in the picture above, where you’ll find statues of their most iconic characters, just like at the Navy SEALs HQ you would find memorabilia of their history.

See where I’m going with this?
A company is like a small country because it needs to give people a sense that they are going somewhere together.
It needs to describe that somewhere, and usually that description is engraved in either a vision of the future, or in a deep pride for the past.

A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by BELONGING

As ESG policies take over the corporate world, belonging is becoming an HR buzzword, yet it is far from one. You see, belonging goes beyond just trying to be inclusive, avoiding discriminatory language, and making sure everyone identifies with the company values.

When we’re creating belonging inside a company, what we’re doing is actually deploying initiatives and starting traditions that foster a sense of safety. And, as Boeing is showing us lately, safety matters greatly, for it is the ingredient you need the most if you want people to come forward – to bring their contributions and their expertise without being afraid of mockery, of their job being at risk, or of being attacked. That’s what a company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by.

You see, the thing about the human brain is that, as advanced as it is, it makes us instinctual creatures with a logical layer to our behavior, while making us believe we’re logical creatures with instinctual tendencies. Responsible for this is a little almond-shaped gland called the Amygdala, responsible for many things like our fight or flight responses and scanning the environment for threats.

What does this have to do with culture though? Glad you asked.

Our minds are always wary of anything that poses a threat to our survival. In particular, being the social creatures we are, our brain will do everything possible to make sure we find a group and blend in with it. This is because, evolutionarily, being rejected by your community meant walking into certain, lonely death.

In today’s society, we’re far from having to die if we get expelled by a group.
Truth be told, we’re far from likely to die even if we find ourselves alone.
However, our brain doesn’t know this.

Hence, a company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by communication. when communicating between each other, your employees intonation, voice and body language will always be sending out cues that answer 3 fundamental questions:

  1. Am I safe?
  2. Are there dangers lurking?
  3. Do I share a future with these people?

Building a culture of safety means making the commitment to establishing communication habits that are simple – which doesn’t mean they’re easy, and for sure means they need constant maintenance. If you achieve that in your organization, you can expect a thriving environment where people mix up, where they collaborate better and take more initiative, and where employee retention improves dramatically.

Fun fact about belonging: A study by Amir Goldberg at Stanford showed that we can predict how long an employee would stay in a company by how frequently their emails contained family references and swear words. And, if you think about it, it just makes sense – nobody will ever share much about their personal life, nor would they ever dare to swear, if they didn’t feel safe.

Navy SEALs | A company's corporate culture is best defined and identified by these 4 elements
120109-N-OT964- California (09 Jan. 2012) Navy SEALs conduct training on land and in water. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Martin L. Carey

A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by VULNERABILITY

Those who know me or follow me carefully on social media know that I am getting certified in PsyOps – aka military operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their motives and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of governments, organizations, groups, and large foreign powers.

I’m bringing this up here because of something interesting I noticed: During the course’s application process, as well as during the first two lessons, we (the students) were told that the entire certification would be held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that we are free to use the information received, but we couldn’t reveal neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speakers, nor that of any other participant.

On top of that, they also told us that nobody was forced to reveal to others their identity, and that it wasn’t allowed to try and find out who the other participants were without them explicitly speaking about themselves.

Lo and behold, all of us gave up the privacy around our identities by lesson number three.

And the reason why is something you can trace back to culture. For example, have you ever wondered why people who served in the military together end up calling each other “brothers?” Or why employees in successful cultures keep saying it feels “like a family”? A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by the individual members’ willingness to put aside their differences towards that common future we mentioned before, and to expose themselves to disagree with things or give new ideas whenever they feel it is safe to do so… but how do you achieve that?

The answer is vulnerability.

And vulnerability is built by spending time together and sharing common experiences – usually experiences that force people past certain boundaries, or that make them feel emotions. More importantly, experiences that force them to understand they can’t succeed alone. That they need the group. To create this vulnerability, what you need is open (not brutal) feedback, overcommunication, and active listening. Employee activities also help, but they’ll never overcome vulnerability. 

If you do things correctly, it becomes inevitable that your people will bond.
Just like it happened in my PsyOps group.

BONUS | A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by MIDDLE MANAGEMENT

I remember dealing with a company that had a great culture.
Several hundred employees, many locations in which people were so passionate about spending time together that they would create their entire social circle within the company, and in some cases spend their free time in the offices, which were set up to accommodate drinking, movie-watching and even barbecues.

However, there was an outlier – what Management thought would eventually become one of the company’s major hubs turned out to be a major cultural headache:

  • The office wasn’t growing fast enough
  • Even when it grew, the office would lose seniors
  • People preferred to travel to other locations rather than be in their main office
  • Employees who didn’t want to travel decided to work remotely, and rarely showed up at the office

Surveys and 1-on-1 interviews kept showing a decrease in employee motivation.
Nobody felt safe enough to take initiatives to change the culture.
Some people weren’t even comfortable voicing their frustration.

The reason? One single individual.

Turns out, all the best offices within that company had a thing in common: A passionate, committed and charismatic local leader that would rally people behind them, thus creating an environment of safety and vulnerability other employees felt drawn to. It was almost addictive.

The outlier office did have a passionate leader that did their best to make their location thrive… but they had a significant issue: People didn’t like being around that person. He would chase down employees who rarely visited to the office and shame them about not being there more often.

In his attempts to fix the decaying culture, his behavior became almost controlling: When put in the safe environment of 1-on-1 interviews, the other employees would complain that the local leader would follow them around, dissecting their every move.
When others tried to confront them, the local leader would either gaslight people, or show openness to new ideas just to ignore them after hearing them.

Here’s my point, and the most important thing you need to remember about this article: A company’s corporate culture is best defined and identified by middle management. This is what happened in that company, and it is also what probably happened at Boeing when managers starting shaming their teams for being too detail-oriented and too much into product safety.

No matter how many initiatives you deploy, and regardless of who you hire to fix your culture and how much you pay them, the culture of every company thrives or dies at middle management. Middle managers will create micro-cultures within their teams when successful, or they’ll destroy any glimpse of positivity when not.

It’s why out Culture Transformation Campaigns include middle management interviews.
And it’s why you should by all means make it a priority not to assign leadership positions based on seniority or friendships, but based on who is the best fit to be a leader. Don’t have a best fit? Train some promising employees. Nurture your talent.

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