Chemistry, not Culture

Instead of culture, let’s talk about chemistry in the workplace.

Credit: Unsplash

Disclaimer: I’m just as guilty of referencing ‘culture’ when describing teams, workplaces, and companies. Recently I’ve grown unsettled with the term. I offer a replacement: chemistry.


Culture = similar things

Culture suggests amalgamation and assimilation of similar things that begin similar or evolve to become similar. Historically when describing societies, it generally refers to shared customs and behaviors. No doubt there are positive things to be said about shared behavior. On the surface this is a good thing.

However, things go awry when poor behavior is amplified by the absence of dissimilarities that would otherwise offset bad actors. This is why in many cases we feel compelled to attach favorable adjectives to culture such as “a positive team culture” or “a healthy company culture” to ensure conduct is favorable—and to clarify that we’re not speaking of bad culture.

The term ‘culture’ carries a lot of baggage too. Try this exercise: see if you can picture in your mind phrases like “startup culture” or “Silicon Valley culture” without immediately reverting to stereotypes, whether positive or negative.

In short, culture denotes sameness and ambiguous outcomes.

Chemistry = similar + dissimilar things

Chemistry, on the other hand, suggests blending similar and dissimilar things. It inherently demands that some degree of variance be present between similar and dissimilar elements; elements that in the workplace include people, diversities, perspectives, backgrounds, customs, behaviors, products, tools, and so forth. Workplace chemistry can lead to powerful, beautiful outcomes.

With chemistry, we aren’t obligated to attach favorable adjectives. Rather, the focus is on the capabilities and properties of our chemical ‘compound’ (system) when all elements are in play. This enables us to use the term neutrally such as “the chemistry of our team is very inclusive” and “our company chemistry encourages everyone to express their opinions freely but defensibly”. Further, if we choose to attach favorable adjectives such as “a healthy chemistry” it generally means greater variance—not less—of dissimilar things.

It’s worth noting that using the term ‘chemistry’ doesn’t mean we lack shared ideals — vision, mission, goals, protocols, etc. It simply means that, instead of individual elements sharing similar properties, the entire system aligns to and shares ideals that are inclusive of all alike and unalike elements and of all similar and dissimilar properties. And while companies are still at liberty to choose which elements define their ideals and which do not, they also realize that allowing new elements to be blended with the existing system can lead to even more powerful, more beautiful outcomes.

In short, chemistry embodies variance. As with culture there’s still ambiguity about the outcome, but the key difference with chemistry is that positive outcomes are not dependent on combining similar things.

Chemistry, not culture.

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