What a Dress Code Doesn’t Say About Company Culture

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Wouldn’t it be nice if creating a winning team were as simple as letting everyone come to work in what they’re most comfortable in? If only a relaxed dress code meant more creativity and productivity.

In reality, what we wear on the outside is far less valuable than what we keep at our core. The problem is, customs of a company (such as what we wear) are often mistaken for indicators of our core values. What we wear, how many ping pong tables sit in the lounge, and the hours an employee keeps are at best surface-level organizational customs. They by no means drive a collective group towards success or determine the fit of individuals within the larger group.

These surface-level customs are far from long lasting and aren’t meant to be built upon, to be evaluated with, or to weather the inevitable ebb and flow of a growing business. True culture drives far deeper and impacts every level of corporate decision making.

Positive Work Culture

You can evaluate workplace success with hundreds of different business metrics, but the more I think and read about this topic, the stronger my conviction — the #1 underlying factor to building a successful team is building it around a culture that’s positive.

This thinking is supported by a 2017 New York Times article discussing why New Year’s Resolutions fail at a far greater rate than they succeed. The piece discusses how we think we can will ourselves to long term success, but in reality, willpower alone can’t sustain long-term motivation. Willpower gives us the ability to sprint a short distance, but we can’t sprint an entire marathon.

Translated to business terms, a fixed intensity driven by willpower may result in a high-performance team in the first quarter, but will it continue on into the fourth quarter? Unlikely. In fact, we would most certainly see a rapid decline in production all together. Perhaps even more troubling, any damage done may not just last a year — it may continue to affect the company for years to come. The wrong motivation can create an environment where unproductive and damaging negative emotions such as envy, disenchantment, exclusion, and insecurity run rampant.

Instead, the article suggests it is our positive social emotions which help us ignore the shortcomings of willpower alone and provides the long-term motivation, environment, and context for sustainable success. At my company Motus, we cultivate emotions such as pride, gratitude, optimism, interest, and confidence to create a culture where shared goals and milestones can be achieved — moving individuals, teams, and the company forward towards greater success without the negative effects of burnout that happen when businesses run on willpower alone.

The Power of a Shared Goal

So how do we cultivate that positive work culture? When a common path is being driven by everyone in the organization with the same goal, the collective team takes the hill and wins more often than not. As a whole, WE are far stronger than one individual, even if that one individual has amazing abilities. A focused and positive group will win more often than they otherwise would as individuals. Their success doesn’t rely on just one person being the hero.

As a business leader today, my focus on the shared buy-in of personal responsibility and “team first” mentality have been a constant — stemming from my experience with high school sports teams, and continuing to shape and solidify in college, my first job working on Wall Street, and subsequently founding my first startup, ConnectEdu. What I saw was when a leader or coach shifts the focus from developing good players to crafting great teams, significant and long-lasting positive results occur. Creating a cultural legacy is more than posting a team motto or mission statement over the door. It is developing a deep and intentional regard for living a shared set of established values.

We would rather have a team of average players, as long as they show up every day determined to play their role better than they did the day before and ready to tackle challenges together. These are the people who will drive new solutions, provide constructive feedback, and enable growth far better than a team of individual heroes who only want to see their name in lights.

Be Curious, Brave, and Exceptional

At Motus, our core values of being curious, brave, and exceptional guide our attitudes and standards. We want and encourage team members to be bold in their curiosity and to ask “why”. We hope they continue to look for new solutions that are even better than the ones we have. Our culture is predicated upon the notion that being brave means asking for help, admitting when you failed, and helping others succeed without seeking praise. We are not looking for MVPs (although we certainly have more than our fair share). Motus thrives on each individual doing their best every day for the betterment of the whole. Being exceptional means doing the hard right instead of the easy wrong. It is easy to blame and to pass the buck to someone else. It is tough to step up, reach out, and work together to fix an issue.

Culture can’t be developed through corporate dress codes or how cool we want to appear. A strong culture is curated through our shared values. Every team or organization has values and these values are demonstrated in how you hire, how you fire, how you develop talent, how you empower, how you win, and how you lose.

The Risk of Misalignment

Our identified core values stem from an approach of personal responsibility and individual empowerment, no matter how big or small the task. Misalignment between core values and corporate actions lead to infighting, wasted time, passing of responsibility, departmental defensiveness, and employee turnover. None of these are helpful to growth.

We aren’t interested in creating a company or culture that’s for everyone, and you shouldn’t be either. We have values and standards we identify, share, and embed in all levels of corporate engagement. Our core values and tenets drive the way we hire, the way we evaluate, how we promote staff, and the way we win.

How We Win

After being on winning and losing teams, I found that if you align your team around your most fundamental core tenets and deploy standards fostered from your values, the attitudes and culture you’re trying to cultivate will develop naturally within your organization. This definitely does not work in reverse. You don’t establish a dress code and naturally develop core values which lead to collective success.

I have always been clear about what values, missions, and directions we use as a compass. What someone wears to work isn’t our top priority in creating culture. What we do care about is how a person works with others, how they tackle problems, and how they run towards our shared goal posts. Our outward customs may change and adapt, but our culture based on shared values is at its very core, built to withstand change and be our true north.