Tim Taylor and Leon Forte-Doddrell
We have all seen the pictures. The young, trendy workspace, centred around a foosball table, beanbags in every corner, a bar loaded with incredible food, and sparkling water on tap.
Who wouldn’t want to work in a cool environment like this?
And yet, the reality of daily life in many such places doesn’t always match the image. This perception of what makes a great place to work has stunted many people’s personal growth when it comes to workplace culture. Well-meaning executives mimic Google and Airbnb, install pool tables, unbutton their shirts, and post Hallmark quotes of the day, carefully crafting their image as a maverick founder and a motivational CEO.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But too many times, it’s not backed up by a genuinely great workplace culture, built on understanding and championing the team’s core values, to create a place where people truly love to work.
Helping people discover their core values is the foundation stone of every great culture.
People create culture. Discovering core values evokes feelings of personal worth, social connection and psychological safety from being accepted for who you are and what you believe.
What do we tell executives that fall into the trap of prioritising cool over culture?
We tell them that they will have to dig deeper than bean bags and free food. If they want to build something that lasts and matters to their people and the customers they serve, they will need to discover why culture, values, and core beliefs are essential to their own well-being and performance - and then invite their whole company into the discussion.
As illustrated in this post, underappreciation is all too common. When senior managers no longer make time to talk to people at all levels in their organisation, they lose touch with what matters most and affects people emotionally and financially.
But it’s not only about employees being underappreciated - although this happens a lot - it’s about underestimating people, both their desire for a place they love to work and their ability to create it - given the right opportunities.
Remember Wilbur Ross? He was widely condemned for being out of touch with ordinary Americans and the cost of living. A man who no longer knows the price of a weekly shop shouldn’t presume to comment on how ordinary people perceive pricing changes on day-to-day goods. But his problem does not stem from being a billionaire; it comes from his personal values that focus on profits over emotions and people.
A culture of pretending is poisonous.
The difference between pretending you are working inside a great culture and actively building a great place to work is conscious attention and the willingness to embrace feedback. Once pretending starts, the decline is steep and fast.
Pretenders look for positive confirmation that their culture is good - and reject any evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, rejecting feedback leads to a culture of fear. In its mildest form, a fear culture has the silent mantra, “it’s ok, don’t say anything”.
In its most pernicious form, the mantra shifts to “don’t dare to speak up, or you will regret it”.
We often get called in to help by one person who sees what is happening but can’t say. They hope that we will do the saying. Our aim is to work alongside those people, to create an environment where they feel able to speak up for themselves.
In one recent engagement, we provided verbatim feedback from the client’s top 25 most talented managers, people that the C-Team had deemed irreplaceable. As the report was delivered, the atmosphere in the room changed from light to hostile. The audience liked all of the positive feedback but vehemently rejected all negative comments. This kind of resistance to criticism prevents personal growth, it establishes fear, producing stress which ultimately costs money.
In another engagement, we experienced a CEO banging the board room table, telling us that there was no fear culture in his company. This is how far pretenders will go to protect their constructed reality.
In workplaces like this, integrity, honesty, respect, openness, excellence, and other similarly laudable values are trotted out, pinned on walls and projected from power-point decks to herald the cultural aspirations deemed acceptable. The problem is the words are not matched by actions and you will hear from the lips of senior people words and phrases that would make Marie-Antoinette turn her head in disbelief.
If you recognise these symptoms, and you want to help change the culture in your business or in your team take the first step,