Culture Isn’t About Control

I recently read an article on Bloomberg Businessweek (about culture and how to sustain it – or whether it’s sustainable – in the wake of so many employees working from home) in which a Stanford researcher interviewed for the article stated: Culture is a way for organizations to control their members, police their behavior. That’s difficult to do when you can’t—after a meeting—say: ‘You know, John, maybe you shouldn’t have said x or y.’

Wow. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anyone say that about culture. Culture is about control? Policing employees? That quote sounds more like the need to offer feedback, which can be provided whether you’re in person or not. Maybe I’m interpreting that quote incorrectly (I don’t think so, given the example), but we know that culture is, essentially, how we do things around here. It’s what people do when no one is looking. How do you get policing out of that?

Culture = core values + behaviors. Critical to that definition is the exercise of defining behaviors. Brainstorm desired behaviors to be associated with each value: behaviors that you believe are in line with the intent of the value, behaviors that would make you proud to work for this company, behaviors that are deliberately aligned with the culture you are designing. For further clarity, you can even outline behaviors that are not acceptable as a result of this core value. Those are guide rails. That’s not about policing. It further clarifies how we do things around here and what to do when no one is looking.

One thing to keep in mind about culture, especially a customer-centric culture: it is deliberately designed to be exactly the way you want it to be. You get the culture you allow or the one you design. Either way, you’ll have a corporate culture. Which do you prefer: the one you design or the one that emerges because you allow it?

According to PwC, distinctive cultures yield better outcomes. Companies with distinctive cultures, combined with a leadership agenda that has culture as a priority, are more likely to say that revenue, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction increased during the pandemic. Nowhere in this research does PwC site that companies are using culture as a way to police employees. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite. When leaders model and reinforce the behaviors that align with the desired culture, they come across as authentic and build trust with employees.

Related: Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes