Let's Set The Scene
Okay, so you’re a leader with a team under you, or you at least want to be.
Imagine you’ve created a checklist to measure your company culture and you’re checking off boxes like,
- Everyone seems friendly with each other
- You’ve created staff events outside of work
- You’ve set up activities like a foosball table
- You celebrate birthdays with cake
- You let everyone know that culture is important to you and tell them they can bring up any issues
- Despite your open door, nobody has come into your office to complain
Everything seems pretty good, right? But then, your team fills out a yearly company feedback survey and the results are bad. Is this a mistake, or is there something else going on?
What Company Culture is Not
The things I’ve listed above do not guarantee a great company culture. I’ve experienced that whole list first-hand working for a company that had terrible culture (despite going on and on about how important it was to them) and the consensus to my team was that these were blind attempts to buy culture.
When I say “buy culture”, I mean they spend money on things that are supposed to make employees happy, instead of identifying and addressing the real issues.
The one I hear the most is that bottom-level employees are friends. Sure, coworkers will bond over working for a company they support and love, but keep in mind that it’s also easy to bond over shared dislikes.
Signs That Your Company Culture Needs Improvement
- Managers and team leads don’t receive feedback
- Employees complain about changes
- Employees gossip to each other about the company, leadership, etc.
- High turnover rates
- Negative employee reviews on sites like GlassDoor
- Employees aren’t openly discussing positive ways to improve processes
Toxic Employees: Don’t get me wrong, there are employees who will cause problems no matter how good your culture is, and I’ll write a separate article about them, but if you’re seeing many of these signs from multiple employees, it means something has gone wrong with the culture.
The first response of many leaders in these situations is to try eliminating things like gossip by further policing employee interactions. Unfortunately, this will just double down on the negativity, so please look for the cause first before doling out punishment.
What a Good Company Culture Needs
Ed Catmull, President at Pixar Animation and Disney Animation’s book Creativity Inc. ends with the iconic sentence,
“Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear”.
This quote is INCREDIBLE! When you read the phrase “unleashing creativity”, keep in mind that it’s this free creativity that creates great company culture.
let’s break it down.
Loosen The Controls
We’ve all worked for managers that want everything done their way. There are many reasons for this like:
- They’re particular
- They feel their experience is more important than new ideas
- They’ve gotten used to their processes
No matter the reason, they can create an immediate understanding that employees’ ideas may be shut down if they’re different in any way.
Quite often, this tight grip is accompanied by personal egos, which means new ideas aren’t perceived as threatening to the old ways, but instead threatening to the person behind the old ways.
When you let your team take control and ownership of their own work, you’ll be amazed at how many great ideas and optimizations come forward.
Of course, you can expect to see an uncomfortable transition period every time you try out new ideas. This is because we tend to perform tasks we are used to better than tasks we’re not used to, but your team will get the hang of it and you’ll certainly benefit in the long-term.
Positive change always comes with a risk. In his book, Ed Catmull talks about learning to ride a bike. When you learned to ride a bike, you were expected to fall off and get back up, right?
Now imagine what it would look like if you were expected to learn how to ride a bike on your first try without falling a single time. Could you do it? Would you even try?
Every business needs to accept that mistakes aren’t only necessary; they’re an absolute blessing. We learn so much more from mistakes than we do from getting one thing right over and over again.
Let your team fall off their bike and get back up. Help them get back up. Even better, help them back up and provide support and constructive feedback to get them going again.
Accept the risk of change and motivate your team to do the same—treat mistakes as the learning opportunities they really are. Sure, you’ll come across ideas that fail outright, but you’ll also find amazing ideas that create improvement like you’ve never seen.
Trust Our Colleagues
This section originally started with me writing the word “trust” nine times in a row. It was ugly so I changed it, BUT—
I can’t hammer this one into your brain enough. Trust is so hard to earn, but it’s so easy to lose.
In my experience, if my boss trusts me to fix a problem the best way I can think of, I can usually fix it in no time. But, if I feel my boss doesn’t trust me to fix that same problem, I’m going to be double and triple checking every aspect of the solution with them.
At this point, I’m just reinforcing that I couldn’t be trusted to figure it out on my own, don’t I?
Trust also goes both ways. If I’m going to bring up an idea, I need to trust that I won’t get brushed off or in trouble for challenging the status quo. I need to trust that my boss isn’t going to take it personally when I say that things need to improve. If I don’t have that trust, I just won’t try.
Trust even needs to exist between peers and across departments. If my boss was on-board with a change I wanted to make, but I felt like my team or a different department would react negatively to me because of it, I might not bring it up unless the boss took full responsibility and left me out of it.
Do you get it yet? Trust is not an option. Trust must be enforced and reinforced at every level every single day. Slip up once and you risk silencing the person who would have made your company millions of dollars.
Work to Clear the Path for Them
This can mean a multitude of things, including clearing the road-blocks created in the previous sections.
- What does your team need to do their job?
- What does your team need to do more than their job?
- What does your team need to want to do more than their job?
Work hard to find and eliminate any barriers that get between your employees and their creativity. Make time for free thinking, allow ideas and discussion to flow freely between peers, departments, hierarchical levels, etc.
Pay Attention to Anything that Creates Fear
The previous points culminate into this one. What does fear look like in your organization?
- Are employees afraid to try new things?
- Are they afraid of ego clash?
- Are they afraid of making mistakes?
- Of getting fired for failing?
The list goes on and on and, like trust, a single event can create fear that can last a lifetime.
I once had a boss that got defensive every time I asked him why we did things a certain way. He would say things like, “why, do you think we should be doing something else?” At first, I was new and passionate enough to keep pushing for positive change (because he had expressed it was what he wanted), but…
The more we had this sort of exchange, the more annoyed he seemed to get with me questioning his choices, and the less energy and effort I invested into improving our business.
The relationship didn’t last long, but I’m certain it would have gotten to the point where I was too afraid to keep trying.
Look for signs of fear like you look for signs of disease—both can be deadly.
The Extra Trouble With Multiple Levels of Leadership
If you’re a team with multiple levels of leadership like team leads, managers, directors, etc. you’re going to have to work much harder than a small team to accomplish the same level of positive culture.
First and foremost, all of these things have to go all the way to the top. I worked with a fairly large company that valued culture, but I learned quickly that even though my direct team lead cared about our wellbeing and valued our ideas, it didn’t matter because at some point up the ladder, ideas were squashed.
The CEO had very specific ideas and ways he wanted to see things run, so he wouldn’t listen to the other C-level management, which meant they didn’t want to bring ideas forward, which meant the directors didn’t, which meant the managers didn’t, and so on.
Does this make sense?
Middle managers and team leads are at a huge disadvantage when they aren’t given the trust they want to give to their teams. A middle manager that needs to answer for their employee’s mistakes may be punished for their team’s errors, so you can imagine they’ll be that much less willing to give their team room to try in the first place.
So What Now?
If your organization is already facing culture issues, you have an extreme uphill battle ahead of you. The first thing you need to do is address the issue as a whole and explain your intent to improve truthfully and transparently.
Make sure you have buy-in at every single level and start to set up ongoing improvement processes such as:
- 1 on 1 meetings: If you don’t already meet individually with your team monthly or even weekly, start now. At first, you probably won’t get much use out of it. It will take a lot of time for them to open up about issues and improvements if they feel like they’re going to get in trouble for it, but it will happen.
- Accept ownership and show vulnerability: If you’re a team lead and anything has gone wrong with your team, accept complete ownership of the issue. What checks were in place to prevent a mistake? What improvements do you need to make moving forward? If your team sees you taking responsibility and not getting in trouble for it, they’ll be more likely to own up to their errors as learning opportunities.
- Eliminate punishment: As we’ve discussed, punishment creates the fear that stops innovation. Treat every error and mistake as a guide to improve. You’re likely to see more mistakes pop up this way, but at least you won’t be stuck in one spot forever. After all, businesses that don’t adapt are sure to fail.
As soon as your team feels like they can be on-board with this movement, things are going to change drastically for the better. We all need to understand that progress takes time and effort from everyone involved, so keep working at it every day—I know you can do it!