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Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Decrypting Work Culture

Mark C. Titi
Dec 13, 2019 · 6 min read

Will 2020 be the year we crack the code?

Although helpful, it really won’t take a mastermind.

A genius who only lived to 41 was said to have saved over 14 million lives.

So why can’t we understand work culture better and “save” millions more?

Do you like apples?

One of his habits was to eat an apple each night before going to bed.

Workplace culture isn’t understood being a shady apple cider salesman. It’s being good at picking and harvesting your apples that counts.

In other words: workplace culture isn’t about manipulation, coercion and perceptions. It’s an inclusive understanding- a shared vision- to be cultivated.

What do you say we try to get things into apple pie order?

It’s time to reveal the naked truth.

I remember visiting the apple orchard as a kid. They always had these little paper cups in a dispenser to use as you lined up to sample the fresh cider. Little did I know at the time that, before apples were even ready to be picked, it took 6–10 years from the time a seedling was planted for the tree to grow! Now throw in risks such as contaminated soil, pesticides and frost. A good apple-like a vibrant work culture-is a true miracle to be appreciated.

  • Culture isn’t built. Attempts to create it are often just a ploy promoting conformity to desired corporate behaviors (AKA “core values” that many inside the organization don’t display or even relate to). That can result in a toxic work environment. Insecure leaders, discontent employees and Boards of Directors asleep at the wheel can all be rotten apples that spoil the whole bushel. Anyone that has experienced this knows the bitter taste it leaves.
  • Culture is absorbed from the very start. Individuals bring unique gifts, beliefs, life experiences and hopes into the workplace. Every apple seedling- like each employee-represents a new possibility for growth. They may be sweet, tart or somewhere in between as you carefully select them, the intersections presenting genuine opportunities. And that’s the real culture- handpicked by you- ready to be absorbed and nurtured.
  • Culture is portable. When you hire a new employee, you add a new apple to the bushel. When an employee leaves, they take who they are- and a piece of your culture- with them.
  • Culture is end user specific. It has individual meaning that emanates from the heart. It’s the values of each person that never change. The superficial part-assuming the role leadership assigns to pay the bills- is like an apple maggot.
  • Culture is minimalistic. Adding more “stuff” into the workplace equation does not elevate people to higher performance levels or greater job satisfaction. That new ping pong table in the staff lounge is like adding a beautiful gazebo somewhere in the apple orchard. It does not add value when it comes to the important task of caring for the trees.
  • Culture arrives ready to be unpacked. It’s in the mind and spirit of every person connected to your organization. You have placed the order. Now the gift is on the doorstep waiting to be opened. Don’t leave it in the box.
  • Culture is found in the conversations that matter. But you need to explore beneath the surface to experience those. And that requires a safe and transparent workplace. No secrets please and you don’t have to be an apple whisperer either.
  • Culture is an open window. It allows for soft breezes, a pleasant view and occasional bit of rain. Growth is found in diversity and challenges that the workplace holds for all of us.
  • Culture is real. Yes, it really is as authentic as the people that make up your organization. If you can’t seem to put your finger on the description of your workplace culture, you are likely chasing a ghost fabricated by plastic employees and their misconceptions.
  • Culture is found at the intersection. It’s where shared purpose lives. The place where each person’s beliefs, skills, goals and curiosities blend together to pursue meaningful objectives. Unlike one-sided visions coming from the top. Apples ripen at different times throughout the year and employees can be expected to do the same-arriving at the intersection from different places, traveling by different means and choosing different routes. And the arrival time will be based upon who they are and the baggage they may be carrying- not by pure manipulation.

(Re)build trust as the groundwork for culture.

“Observe all men; thyself most.” ~Benjamin Franklin

Trust is at the root of culture. It can take a long time to build and maintain. But here are some ways it can be destroyed very quickly.

 Covering up mistakes

 Leaking confidential information

 Low transparency from leadership

 Rewarding poor performers

 Shutting down ideas

 Taking credit for others work

These are all examples of crippling actions that damage trust. Low self-esteem and the absence of a strong moral compass are many times driving these actions.

Good organizations realize the adverse consequences resulting from a loss of trust. Most importantly, relationships can be impaired. No organization can become truly successful in an environment of distrust.

Acknowledging broken trust is the first step in repairing it. People have likely been hurt. Leadership must demonstrate that it will dig deeper to help individuals release bitterness and resentment.

Releasing the organization from the grip of distrust is a prerequisite to producing quality outcomes. Taking steps to advance partnerships and create deeper personal connections with stakeholders elevates the culture.

A vibrant organization searches for momentum by asking questions like these.

1. IDEAS. Is input from employees being actively cultivated, evaluated and acted upon?

2. PROCESSES. Does a program exist to proactively raise curiosity and address potential opportunities?

3. PEOPLE. Have they been empowered or do they contribute to the vision in a muted fashion?

4. QUALITY. Which measured outcomes are above the bar?

The best organizations further search for momentum by using the 5 D’s. Which are building a legacy and which are dead weights? Which can be used to build something more and which are obstacles to the vision?

What operational areas are Decorative? These enrich and elevate your organization.

Which areas are Durable? These are long-lasting and offer a dependable foundation.

Which are in Decay? These are rusting out and showing signs of decline.

Where has Death occurred? Activity has ceased in these areas.

Which are Destructive? These cause damage to your mission, vision and values.

Core values get talked up a lot. And they get publicized a lot too. In the Annual Report. On the website. In the employee handbook. On the refrigerator in the lunch room. Even on flashy, modern billboards.

Plenty of sizzle but sometimes a lousy steak.

Organizations can’t cook up core values to make themselves look attractive,(re)build trust and establish momentum. Those values must be exemplified over the long-term.

And, when they aren’t, it will be easy to see through the smoke screen.

“If we all collectively generate good energy, there will be a good outcome.” ~Shari Arison

No individual should ever be considered more important than the organization as a whole. There must be acknowledgement that we cannot work alone. We must always be seeking out others who share our purpose; otherwise nothing will move forward.

An organization that practices forgiveness, maintains trust and has a clear vision is a powerful force with unlimited possibilities. How it pursues its purpose is never in question.

Collective will is contagious and begins to attract like-minded people. That includes potential employees, board members, clients and partners. It provides the fuel for uncommon outcomes.

The ability to create and sustain collective will is a byproduct of a strong culture.

Here’s the brass tacks.

Employers do not create the culture alone.

Organizations consist of people.

Those people bring who they are to the workplace.

That helps form the culture.

When who they are is rejected they are fired or quit.

When who they are is accepted they are capable of making powerful contributions to success.

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What’s your workplace culture like?



Somewhere in between?

I have first-hand experience with toxic workplace cultures and maybe you do too. Call me a toxic work environment survivor, I guess. It has provided an added inspiration for my work. But I have also had the opportunity to experience dynamic work environments too.

Many of us spend a lot of time at work so why not make it a meaningful part of our life experience? Along with other readers, I would be delighted if you would share how your workplace has-or hasn’t-stirred your soul.

During World War II, Alan Turing led a team that cracked the code of the Nazis. This resulted in the Allies winning crucial engagements and-eventually- the war. When he died in 1954, a half-eaten apple was found beside his bed.

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