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How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

The most common factor we tend to think plays a role in how company culture shapes employee motivation is talent.
And it sounds logic, doesn’t it?

If one individual can achieve massive things alone, imagine can do if you pick many other top-of-the-food-chain people, put them together and have them 10x what they can achieve alone. They will also push each other to be better, because iron sharpens iron and winners win, and [insert any other cliché motivational saying about winners].

Well, turns out that’s wrong. With the exception of the 1992 US men’s basketball Olympic team, where Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pipper and other NBA stars joined forces to win a gold medal, when you put together top performers, they will tend to perform worse. For example, put together a Management team of alphas who worked for Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll soon find out they start clashing as attrition & rivalry replace motivation.
Or take the most genius students of a university, and have them compete against kindergarteners to build spaghetti towers that hold up a marshmallow (this was a real experiment, by the way, and the kids won).

So, if talent is not the main component of how company culture shapes employee motivation, what is?

Before we get there, I need to tell you a secret to manufacturing great company culture: That secret is a thing that Navy SEALs and Google employees have in common with you, me, and a 3yo kid.

Synapses | How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

The Brain’s Role in How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

I recently interacted with a billion-dollar company whose three CFOs had one issue they could not seem to solve: Their organization kept churning senior talent despite the fact that Management kept increasing corporate benefits.

At first glance, this makes no sense right?
Benefits make any workplace objectively better.

However, it starts to make sense when you look into what makes the most iconic cultures in the world so great: How they leverage the human brain to build connections between their members.

You see, group performance is not a result of talent.
Group performance comes from behavioural patterns.
The intelligence of a group is measured not by how many A-List players you can deploy on the field, but rather than how people can combine their skills into a greater intelligence. However, people can only combine their skills when the environment around them feels safe enough for them to open up a suggest an idea. And here’s where the human brain comes into place:

The amygdala, for example, is an almond-shaped structure at the core of hour brains. It has many functions, but you can picture it as an our most primitive alarm & security camera system: It is constantly scanning the new environment for threats. Once it finds one, it triggers a fight-or-flight response – which is part of the reason why it plays such a big role in social connections.

To put this into context, let’s bring things back to the spaghetti challenge example: When you put together a team of stars, or any group of people for that matter, they start doing something called Status Management. Status Management plays a key role in how company culture shapes employee motivation, because it helps our brains understand:

  • Who is in charge
  • What are the rules of the group?
  • Is it alright to criticize someone’s idea?

In highly effective cultures, like in that of a group of kids try to solve a challenge, Status Management is reduced to the minimum. Not burdened by roles and societal expectations, nor by the fear of being shunned, children are free to focus solely on the task at hand.

In highly inefficient cultures, however, Status Management is the norm, and the consequences are dire: As mentioned, the amygdala is a primitive part of our brains. It doesn’t understand the difference between a playful challenge, a meeting at work, or a life-or-death situation. And humans are social creatures whose livelihood depends on being part of the group, so if we fail at Status Management, out brain feels like we’re going to get isolated. Isolation means death.

See the pattern here?

The key to culture, and the secret red thread that connects both a tough, movie-like Navy SEAL and a Silicon Valley programmer drinking a latte, comes down to something as basic as human nature. Basic, however, doesn’t mean easy or simple – you can enter any martial arts gym and ask what’s the most important and hardest thing to master, and the teacher will tell you it’s the basics.

Long story short, the answer to how company culture shapes employee motivation is simple: By creating a working place that has 3 secret ingredients… three ingredients that cover the basics of human interaction.

  • Safety & Belonging
  • Vulnerability
  • Purpose

Let’s shortly tackle them one by one.

Barbie Mattel Scene | How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

The Role of Purpose in How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

Try to recall how the 9-5 job is depicted in pop culture. If you watched 2023’s Barbie movie, you’ll find the perfect example on the cartoonish depiction of the Mattel offices: A gray building, full of gray hallways where gray-dressed people worked in gray cubicles. Even the word “cubicle” is so engrained into us that it immediately evokes images of sterile office spaces where Kevin hates Josh because Josh ate Kevin’s lunch in 2004.

That image, that societal depiction, is the product of a very common phenomenon: People feel like most jobs are soulless. Like they lack purpose. And purpose was the last item on that list, but I am putting it first because it is the foundation of every group. Purpose is what makes sure people put aside their differences to become a community.

However, there’s a final ingredient missing: The future. Successful groups share a present and are satisfied in it because they feel like their work is amounting to something – more specifically, a future goal. A shared destination.

The Role of Safety in How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

Safety is the key to understanding how company culture shapes employee motivation, and if you want to build it in your company, you need people to feel close to each other. It’s the reason why Tech companies, with whom I’ve worked plenty, have open-space offices where people can have eye contact. It’s the reason why they deploy initiatives where employees spend their evenings drinking together, watching movies, or why they put each other’s birthdays on the office calendar to make sure they do something special that day.

With these kind of initiatives, what employees are actually doing is communicating at a primitive level.
Remember how the amygdala is always scanning for threats? This piece of knowledge is essential to understanding culture, because that act of scanning the environment doesn’t stop. The amygdala is literally always looking for threats, and the only way to disengage it and make someone feel safe is to deploy a type of communication that answers the questions: 

Am I safe?
Are there dangers lurking?
Do I share a future with this people?

Behaviors that answers these questions are called belonging cues, and they happen when people are invested in the interaction, and when they treat each other as unique and valued. Culture is this about making people feel appreciated by making them feel:

  1. Valued
  2. Involved
  3. Safe to express

This is what makes cultures hard to maintain, and what can lead a company to a significant risk of downfall… and if you don’t believe me, look at what’s currently going on with Boeing– reporting safety risks became taboo in their culture, which led to safety issues and accidents on their plane. Will they fix it?
Unless they hire someone to help and listen to that someone, I don’t think so.
God knows how much fun I’d have applying these principles to that company with our CULTOP solution.

Successful Culture | How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

The Role of Vulnerability in How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

It’s iconic and almost a meme how American college fraternities have initiation rites for their new members. Likewise, in many societies initiation rituals are common to this day – for example, in some South American cultures, a girl’s 15th birthday is more important than her 18th, because traditionally it’s the 15th year that begins the transition into womanhood.

The examples are countless, but the point is one: Vulnerability, which is the ability to come forward and face uncomfortable truths, is built over time… and often through rituals. Vulnerability is about smooth, trusting collaboration. It is the secret to groups that act like one mind.

Usually, we are wrongly convinced that people need to gain our trust so that we can be vulnerable. If you want a successful culture, you need to know that it’s actually the opposite: What creates trust is that vulnerability, because it gets rids of attrition. It flushes Status Management down the drain and allows people to focus on doing the work together.

When you are vulnerable, you are sending a clear signal to the group: I have a weakness and could use some help – and what this triggers is that others set aside their own insecurities to aid the group. Vulnerability allows others to relax and say “if this person can be open and human, so can I.” It is the secret sauce to secret societies, élite military units, and successful corporate culture… especially when you execute on the action point I am about to give you:

If you’re the leader, be vulnerable.
And if you’re not the leader but know a leader that needs to read this, send them this article so they can be vulnerable. There’s nothing as powerful a leader confident enough to admit “I f*cked up,” and ask for the feedback of those they lead.

Answered: How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation 

Company culture shapes employee motivation by leveraging the very essence of our nature as social creatures. A successful company culture is a community that feels like a family. It is a place where people can be open about the quality of each other’s work, and where they feel they can contribute to the benefit of the entire business.

Even more than that, company culture is about purpose. About feeling that those 90.000 hours of life we spent working weren’t just wasted. About knowing that we had an impact on the world, and that we were in good company while doing it.

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