By Ian Clawson and Chris Deaver
The best workplace cultures of the future will encourage people to be more creative. Where people are guided by timeless principles instead of feeling suffocated by too many rules and policies. An experience where controlled environments start to loosen their grip to let people finally breathe. A place where relationships are valued, with genuine trust extended and with peers that hold each other accountable for the quality of work to be achieved and the desired outcomes to be reached.
A thriving culture is no easy task and there is no quick fix or hack that can accelerate things. Culture is as good as the caliber of people tied to it. The shared values. The character of the leaders. The beliefs and behaviors of the people. It all stacks up.
People need direction and more importantly they need to help steer that direction. Cultures need a movement. Something to get behind and something to aim at. The type of movement that fosters a sense of unity among all sorts of personalities, varying skill sets and different ideas that are manifested and expressed in a culture.
Leaders can’t control culture, yet they can influence things in a positive or negative way.
Adam Grant, in a recent episode in his WorkLife podcast with the TED Audio Collective, shares that people often claim their cultures are unique. But when thousands of organizations have been studied, you can start to see the underlying patterns.
Grant believes that it has to do with how teams can balance key priorities. The research he describes shows two fundamental tensions in organizational culture: Results vs. Relationships and Rules vs. Risk. If one of these areas are taken to an extreme the culture can suffer. Also, if one or more of these characteristics are ignored by leaders and people, they are potentially committing what he calls the 4 deadly sins of organizational culture: Toxicity, Mediocracy, Bureaucracy, and Anarchy.
Adam Grant calls the first sin of culture: Toxicity. It is the most fatal sin of all. More than burnout or low pay, toxic culture is the largest cause of turnover, according to recent research on the Great Resignation. When a culture puts emphasis on results over relationships, toxicity permeates the culture. Making progress at the expense of treating others fairly. The company tolerates disrespect, mistreatment, exclusion, immoral choices, and cutthroat, self-serving behavior. When people don’t get fired for such behavior or even worse, still get promoted then the culture remains radioactive.
A second sin is at the other extreme of the scale: Mediocrity. Putting relationships above outcomes. There is a dire lack of responsibility and accountability. People often sacrifice quality work because they are so concerned about getting along. Even if you perform poorly, you can advance in a culture of mediocrity with people just like you.
This third sin is all too familiar: Bureaucracy. When a culture is all rules and no risks, bureaucrats reign supreme. The status quo is threatened by new ideas. People protect the status quo and oppose innovation. They mitigate change and even consider it blasphemous to question the way we’ve always done things! Red tape is everywhere leading to high anxiety and voices that grow more and more silent overtime.
The fourth sin can emerge if you are not careful: Anarchy. Where there are risks, but no regulations. Anyone is free to act however they like; strategy and organization be damned. Nobody ever comes to a consensus or learns from the past. It’s total mayhem. This can be a dizzying and directionless experience for people.
Grant clearly points out the common patterns found in workplace culture. This can help leaders determine what type of culture they are currently tied to.
Now, where can we go from here?
We believe that organizations can lean into each of the 4 quadrant’s Grant articulated (Results / Relationships / Rules / Risk) and cultures can become synthesized to find it’s sweet spot. This isn’t a balancing act; it is a blended effort. Organizations can be intentional about the direction they are heading. Their people can help with that direction.
Leaders that find themselves at a crossroad must become the future. Organizations can provide the resources and direction to get there. Here’s how:
A Culture Must Understand It’s AIM
The main aspiration for any workplace culture must be clear to the group of people that make up that culture especially for newcomers. What is the aim? Otherwise, the constant squeeze for results at the expense of the people will hold no meaning and worse a directionless culture will feel like a toxic one. Give people something to contribute to and the resources to do it. When the aim also includes the well-being of the people, results will follow.
A Culture Can Shift from Transactions to Transformations
We need to get to a point in our work life where employees are seen and treated like investments instead of feeling like a line-item expense on a P&L statement. Empower your people. Trust them. Don’t just talk about leadership. Be a leader. Show them how much you care. Help them grow and develop. Help them feel seen, heard, and valued. If the workplace is only about relationships, then the culture might remain mediocre without actually building something. Make relationships transformational and watch the business transform.
A Culture Should Be Guided by Timeless Principles
You may share a set of corporate values with new hires during orientation but where else do they experience those values? Can they see it embodied by their peers and their leaders in the workplace? Are they inspired by these values? You may have started off with the right vision and with important values in mind. Now it has become bloated with outdated policies and bureaucracy. And yet somewhere along the way there is a gap between these values and the behaviors displayed by the people. It may be time to clarify these values and goals. Involve the key people of the organization that are leaning into the future. Reframe these core values as sticky themes that people can lean into and embrace. Timeless principles that give your culture the direction it needs during good times and bad.
A Culture Needs to Be Brave Creatively
The workplace is riddled with data and spreadsheets. While it is important to track the progress or decline of the business, most employees feel disengaged with their mundane “to do” lists, never-ending deadlines and growing KPI expectations. What tends to be missing in the day to day is the art of the work. Where skills, talent and passion collide. Where ideas take shape and impact is felt. Don’t just hire people that say all the right things, diverse ideas and actions will show up in what people do and how they do it. Be intentional in the space and design of creative expression that is baked into meetings, systems, and workplace experiences. Intention and structure along these lines helps the organization navigate risk while also avoiding full blown anarchy. Unleash your people to be who they truly are, who they’ve always wanted to be at work. Don’t make everyone try to fit into a corporate mold. Let them be Creators, and together they will help shape your culture of the future.
Chris Deaver and Ian Clawson are cofounders of BraveCore, a leadership consultancy that’s shaping the future by helping leaders be more creative and creatives be better leaders. They co-host the podcast Lead with a Question.