“Ping pong tables are not, in fact, part of your culture,” wrote Mike Templeman earlier this year. These ubiquitous office morale boosters have gotten a lock of mockery as of late, but the point stands: a lot of companies seem to be mistaking perks for culture. Perks are little touches, like ping pong tables and free snacks, while culture is the company’s values, leadership style, and overall vision. It dictates how your employees will make decisions and drive business.
That’s not to say that people don’t like perks. Design-forward work spaces, casual dress codes, and free snacks can do a lot for employee happiness, but they aren’t actually company culture and they can’t make up for deeper problems or misunderstandings within.
If you’re seeing signs that your company culture isn’t working — like short tempers, little communication between departments, and dwindling empathy — it’s probably time to rethink your approach. Start by assessing whether you’re making these very common mistakes.
Key cultural values aren’t shared by all employees
Even small management decisions can send mixed messages to employees about what the company really values. A lot of company culture is created by the founder. But while the executives may be working hard on the high-level cultural vision, lower level managers can be undoing that work when their choices contradict company culture. At best, this gives employees the impression that the company is disorganized, at worst, it can look outright dishonest.
An example: I once worked for a small company that prided itself on a culture of individuality. Along with a host of other benefits, they offered flexible schedules and weekly work-from-home options. One day the CEO gave us an hour-long presentation about self-care and honoring each individual’s needs for better work/life balance. He informed us that marathons, meditation classes, and other expenditures that brought employees mental and physical health benefits could be reimbursed. “Just ask!” He said. “We want you all to be happy and healthy. If there’s something not on this list that you need in order to be healthy, we want to help.”
I took it as a sign that I should ask for more work-from-home time. I felt pretty confident that I’d get it too. On top of the fact that we had a handful of employees who successfully worked remotely every day, I’d just gotten two thumbs up on my annual performance review.
But my immediate supervisor said that while she was onboard with the idea, her boss (someone I’d never worked with directly) had refused. He said he didn’t think it was necessary, that I was doing fine work in the current arrangement.
While our CEO was adamant that flexibility and self-care was important to the company, one of managers was making decisions that directly contradicted that value system. It was a clear sign to me that everyone wasn’t on the same page.
What can you do to prevent this from happening? Keep culture top of mind when hiring and continue to communicate around these ideas with the team. Your employees should feel encouraged to learn and talk about the culture, and talk about it with leaders on a regular basis. Culture is defined from the top down, but it’s everyone, together, who keeps it alive and healthy. Zappos is famous for keeping their culture so top of mind that it’s the guiding force behind how the business is run. It’s an approach that’s worked well for them.
Last year, Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, decided to transition to Holacracy, a fairly radical management style that essentially ditches a strict hierarchy for a more pod-like organization and cooperative management. It’s not a system that would work for everyone — 14% of the Zappos staff opted for a three month severance package than work the Holocracy way, but Hsieh isn’t interested in playing it safe. After all, the ten Zappos company values include statements like, “Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded” and “Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication.” The culture is going full steam ahead towards those goals by embracing a leadership style that, by design, requires great communication and an open-minded group in order to function.
You gloss over the tough stuff
It’s always important to showcase your best assets, to tout your company’s advantages, and make sure prospective recruits and current employees are fully aware of all the reasons your teams enjoy being at your company..
But make sure it’s a realistic picture that doesn’t shy away from the harder aspects of the job. No approach to company culture works for everyone and no method is without drawbacks of some sort. Highlighting all the great parts of your company culture without underlining the consequences can create unreasonable expectations and foster frustration further down the line.
Patty McCord, the consultant who built Netflix’s famous culture, wrote a fascinating article about developing this daring HR approach. She describes the company’s culture as one that treats all employees like adults — with all the freedoms and responsibilities that come along with it. Vacation time is mostly up to the individual and all employees are encouraged to interview at other companies whenever recruiters call.
But McCord doesn’t pretend that this approach is all sunshine and rainbows — she points out that the philosophy goes both ways. Everyone is responsible for bringing something to the table. If a beloved, hard working member of the team finds their skills are no longer relevant to the company’s direction, they’re given a generous severance package and sent out the door. Everyone who works at Netflix is aware of this from day one, and no one is exempt. In fact, McCord, herself, was asked to leave Netflix in 2012 for that very reason. She’d built their culture from the ground up, but after a decade and a half, when they were sure the culture was clearly defined and self-sustaining, they decided it was time for her to go.
That kind of honesty isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not the culture that everyone wants to be a part of. By clearly defining the company’s culture and ensuring that everyone knows about it and lives by it, Netflix is ensuring the whole company is moving in the same direction.
The culture is defined only by a single group
One of the most interesting aspects of starting a new job for someone who isn’t white, male, straight, cis — or any combination of the above — is sizing up the aspects of company culture that aren’t openly discussed. Are there any leaders who are queer women of color? Do they actually have power in the company or are they used as politically correct props? How do employees talk about them when they’re not in the room?
Your company culture PowerPoint presentation might wax poetic about the importance of diversity, but your employees will notice if there’s a gap between how the company claims to approach diversity and what’s actually taking place in the office. This diversity and culture mismatch is evident in the tech sector, where companies frequently profess their commitment to hiring diversely, but continue to find the numbers just don’t support this.
The biggest problem, of course, is that people in privilege often don’t see these issues. We all assume our experience of culture — whether that’s a wider national culture or our company culture — is shared by the people around us. The truth, though, is that we all have very different experiences. Just because you’ve never heard any of your team make an ignorant comment doesn’t mean it never happens. The dynamics of privilege are complicated and fraught with history, politics, and deeply personal experiences. When we’re in our own heads, our own life drama it can be hard to recognize the microaggressions that are not directed at you, which is probably part of the reason why the very people who can do the most for equality don’t often show up to diversity conversations.
Before proclaiming your office a diversity-friendly place, take a few steps to find any blind spots and address those issues head on. The first step? Open up an anonymous assessment of company culture and diversity. There are a myriad of workplace feedback tools out there built specifically to improve engagement. Take advantage of them.
The way you approach feedback and the kinds of questions you ask will tell your employees what you’re looking to change. Simply saying, “the door is open” probably won’t spur the kind of dialog you want since the onus is still on employees to initiate the conversation. But creating a framework for feedback while still keeping it private, can give employees the impetus and the space to really dig into the company culture.
When asking questions: Be specific, but keep questions open ended. For example, instead of asking, “What do you think of the currently policies in place?” try asking, “If you could change one company rule or process today, what would it be and why? Describe the steps you would take to make the change.” By asking your employees to hypothetically put themselves in the power seat, you’re forcing them to think deeply about the current company dynamics and consider the logistical reality of solving that problem.
Feedback can generate real answers and solutions, and at the same time, it can also help morale by reminding everyone that every role comes with difficult decisions. This kind empathy work is a powerful way to help employees consider the challenges of leadership while giving leadership a sense of how the decisions they make impact employees.
It’s also important to drive home that this isn’t just a vanity exercise. If your team gets even one hint that this is all for show or you aren’t ready to make changes, they’ll assume it’s a waste of time and energy.
Be open and honest about what you’re doing when you announce the feedback system. Tell your team that you realize privilege isn’t always easy to see, and that you want to address even the smallest issues to make your office the most supportive environment possible.
Ask everyone to participate, keep it anonymous, and prepare to swallow your pride. It can be tough for leaders to hear about the things happening in their company, especially when it signifies that their good intentions and honest efforts aren’t measuring up in terms of real employee support. It’s critical that you don’t shut down criticisms or suggestions simply because you don’t see the problem.
Your company is growing, while trying to keep the same culture
What works well for a small startup with five employees won’t necessarily work for 50 or 500 employees. Growth means change, and one of the biggest culture challenges for growing companies is adjusting policies, perks, and sometimes even the larger culture.
As you change, you’ll need to constantly adjust. The key to a company culture that’s never obsolete? Keep listening, says Sean Storin, the CEO of One Degree, a culture-oriented job search site. “Employers want to drive culture, but employees are the ones who are actually going to build it.”
Changing established company culture isn’t easy. There’s a reason so many companies trudge on with a culture that doesn’t fit anymore. But you can manage a seamless and targeted cultural shift if you approach methodically.
And make sure that the conversation is open and honest about the future of the company too. You’re planning to stick around and grow, right? Share your vision of the company’s future with employees and potential hires.
If all goes well, these employees should become leaders at your company, so it’s important they give them an honest picture of where the company is headed, even if it involves a high likelihood that the culture may change.
As you and your team look over the company culture and decide what’s working and what needs to change, keep an open mind and talk about every development. Misunderstandings can boil over into unnecessary conflict. Everyone thinks they’re responsible for defining culture, but the truth is that it’s a group effort. Keeping everyone on the same page and aware of what’s going on will reduce the chances of making any of these mistakes again in the future.