Architecting a Positive Corporate Culture Part 2: Structure

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In this edition

Right before the holidays, I wrote the first part of this series on Architecting a Positive Corporate Culture. In it, I suggested that thinking about culture either affectively (something we feel emotionally, like positive interactions with our colleagues) or a pragmatically (actions being consistent with values) kind of overlooks a key point:

If “a good corporate culture” is the answer, what exactly is the question?

The question, I believe, emanates from what people desire and how they pursue those desires. As Luke Burgis (himself a student of French philosopher and historian René Girard) suggests, our desires are ‘mimetic’, meaning that they are crucially influenced by those around us. Thus, we might buy a new iPhone, wear certain brands, or pursue specific careers not purely out of personal preference, but because people we admire or aspire to be like are doing it.

There are two types of desires Burgis refers to. ‘Thin desires’ are those that are shallow and fleeting, whereas ‘thick desires’ are more substantial, authentic, and truly fulfilling. Unsurprisingly, Burgis points out that pursuit of thin desires tends to drive us negatively, whereas thick desires encourage more positive sentiment.

Creating a positive culture therefore means minimizing the thin stuff and maximizing the thick stuff. Over the next three weeks, I’ll share how leaders might do this in three parts:

  1. Creating an environment that minimizes the thin and maximizes the thick mimetic behavior
  2. Hiring people whose professional capabilities and personal characteristics contribute positively to the culture
  3. Ensuring the resilience of the organization over time.

This week we’ll start with the environment.

Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

Architecting a Positive Culture (Part 2): Structure

There are essentially three elements to creating a corporate culture that is conducive to positive mimesis. One is to create an environment—a structure, a set of core principles, code of conduct, terms of engagement—that is fertile ground for positive, constructive desires. The second is to populate that environment with people who want that and are willing to do the work to make it happen. The third is the ability to recognize and react to external factors and the business’s own evolution to maintain and evolve the company’s culture. Let’s start with the environment.

The Right Environment

What would you need to do to create a minimally-mimetic environment?

  1. Ensure success is not a zero-sum game. Budgets. Resource allocation. Forced rankings of performance. Bonus pools. Promotion opportunities. The workplace is a well-oiled competition machine. Simple transparency around decision-making in budgeting, resource allocation, and promotions can go a long way to minimizing competition. Proactive cross-departmental effort to connect the ends to the means and have meaningful career discussions with people go even further. The best tactic is to embed professional development and team contributions alongside functional performance when setting individual goals. This way, each person’s individual success explicitly serves the broader business.
  2. Treat people equally and equitably. In a minimally mimetic environment, it’s crucial to treat all employees with equal respect and consideration, while also recognizing and addressing their unique needs and circumstances. Equality ensures that everyone is given the same opportunities and is held to the same standards. Equity goes a step further, acknowledging that each individual might require different resources or support to achieve similar outcomes. This approach will foster a workplace where fitness and fairness prevail, and where employees feel genuinely supported, valued and included, irrespective of their background or role. This applies for everything: compensation, promotion opportunities, professional development, access to leadership… you name it.
  3. Set clear and reasonable expectations It’s so basic, and yet it is clear that this is a central cause of disengagement and frustration. Managers have a responsibility for ensuring employees understand what they are being asked to do and when, and to what standards they are being held. The single most important driver of satisfaction, and thus retention, is the manager-employee relationship. Work on it. Ensure a fair work distribution, sufficient support and resources, and communicate openly about progress and issues. Unclear or unstated goals, under-resourced teams, broken processes, poor managers, and tolerance of shortcomings will create a culture of fear, frustration, and failure.
  4. Listen more than you speak. Most communication about corporate culture comes from the top, either explicitly in the form of mission/vision/values or implicitly by the behaviors and priorities that leaders exhibit. Encourage a culture where listening is as valued as speaking. Implement a credible feedback system where employee input leads to tangible changes, promoting a sense of ownership and value.
  5. Aim high, and walk the talk. Leaders must exemplify the culture they wish to see. This means setting high standards and then acting in accordance with those standards every single day. Naturally, this means not only in terms of functional performance, but also in terms of human performance.
  6. Let people get on with the job. Allow employees autonomy to do the work you’ve given them. In exchange, tell them what sort of visibility you need from them to monitor progress. Help them remove barriers, and minimize unnecessary disruptions or course corrections. It’s the foundation of trust.
  7. Balance accountability with the freedom to fail. Hold people accountable for their actions and outcomes, but also create a safe space for taking calculated risks and learn from failures. Lend your own credibility and support to their efforts. By championing your people, your team will learn valuable lessons about accountability, personal agency, indirect influence, communication, risk management, and leadership. What a gift you will be giving them.
  8. Allow for life to get in the way. Most of us have been programmed to not share too much of our personal lives in the workplace, but that doesn’t stop personal situations from influencing—positively or negatively—our attitudes and performance. You never know what people are going through. You don’t need to be best friends with or recount your life story to colleagues. Simply asking people how they are doing opens the door of empathy, humanity, and caring that may be sorely needed and surely appreciated. Give people going through tough times the ability to take time out when they need it. Who cares how many sick days or vacation days they have. A great team will rally around them.
  9. Zero tolerance for incompatible people and practices. This is non-negotiable. Enforce a policy of zero tolerance for poor performers and toxic behaviors. This includes people who may be great performers but who are also occasional jerks. Yes, you should give people a chance. Make sure you reiterate the functional and/or human requirements of the job. Allow offenders the opportunity to make amends. But if they don’t, they need to go. No quarter. Tolerating even one person with a bad or non-constructive attitude can kill the morale of an entire team. Ensuring a respectful and inclusive environment is crucial for a healthy, mimetically minimal workplace.

There is a lot to do behind each one of these elements. If you’re finding that you have a lot of work to do on the environment, start with the elements that you feel are the greatest priority, then work your way through the rest.

Next week, we’ll talk about the people.

LinkedIn Roundup

Here are the things I talked about this past week on Linkedin.

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