Architecting a Positive Corporate Culture

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In this edition

Creating a positive corporate culture is one of the hardest things you can do. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong even when leaders are well-intentioned. Why does it go wrong, and how do you get it to go right?

The answers to these questions start by understanding what people desire and how they pursue those desires. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading Luke Burgis’s Wanting. Drawing on the work of French philosopher and historian René Girard, Burgis provides valuable insight into our understanding of desire. Girard believed that 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. (Social media is Girardian desire on steroids.)

But this imitation can lead us astray. Because our emulation of others often operates unconsciously, we can often travel quite far pursuing what Burgis calls ‘thin desires’, those that are shallow and fleeting, before we discover that they do not align with our ‘thick desires’, those that are more substantial, authentic, and truly fulfilling.

You can imagine where this goes in the workplace.

There are few things you can work on that impact execution more profoundly than culture. Over the next three (maybe four) issues of this newsletter, I’ll be digging into how leaders can build a culture that promotes positive mimetic behaviors to build a great workplace.

This edition starts with the fundamentals on mimetic behavior and why it matters at work. Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

Architecting a Positive Culture (Part 1)

What is corporate culture?

In my experience, when asked about corporate culture, people typically respond in one of two ways. The most common view is affective: culture is seen as how people interact within an office. In this view, a good culture is synonymous with niceness and a collegial atmosphere, whereas a bad culture lacks these qualities.

Alternatively, others answer this question more pragmatically: culture is “the way we do things around here.” This perspective implies that a good culture involves not only articulating what the company stands for—its mission, vision, and purpose—but also ensuring that the actions taken and decisions made by people in the company are consistent with these declarations.

However, both of these perspectives overlook a crucial element: the underlying desires and motivations that shape these interactions and practices. If “a good corporate culture” is the answer, what is the question? Are we merely aiming to create a pleasant work environment, or are we seeking something more profound?

The question, I believe, lies in understanding what people fundamentally want from their work and how these desires align with and help them fulfill their broader life aspirations.

The Theory of Mimetic Desire

If you haven’t encountered author and entrepreneur Luke Burgis, I recommend exploring his writing. Drawing on the work of French philosopher and historian René Girard, Burgis provides valuable insight into our understanding of desire. Girard believed that our desires—that is, what we want beyond basic material needs—are mimetically formed, meaning that they are crucially influenced by those around us. Essentially, we view people around us as models and emulate what we see. Per Burgis:

Models are people, groups, or things that help us know what to want. Models are like people who seem farther up ahead on the path we’re on. We assume that they have some insight into which direction to go that we do not. In short, we assume they have something that we do not—that they possess some quality of being that we do not. And so we follow them.

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. (Social media is Girardian desire on steroids.)

But this imitation can lead us astray. Because our emulation of others often operates unconsciously, we can often travel quite far pursuing what Burgis calls ‘thin desires’, those that are shallow and fleeting, before we discover that they do not align with our ‘thick desires’, those that are more substantial, authentic, and truly fulfilling. Put differently, we can get awfully far down the road of imitation and competition without realizing that maybe the things we have been chasing aren’t really what we want or find meaningful.

The Workplace is a Cauldron of Thin Desires

In the workplace, mimetic desire manifests itself when employees (often unconsciously) emulate the desires, goals, and behaviors of their peers and leaders. This imitation shapes not just their individual experiences but also the overarching culture and ethos of an organization. Thus, when people (like me) say that “culture comes from the top”, they are observing that the process of mimesis creates one and only one outcome in a company, namely that the company’s culture reflects the desires and actions of the boss.

The danger, therefore, lies when the company’s culture conflicts with an individual’s values and negatively impacts their well-being. Undealt with, these situations can lead to frustration, dissatisfaction, burnout, and disengagement.

Of course, not all mimesis is negative! Positive mimesis occurs when employees imitate behaviors and attitudes that are constructive and beneficial for both themselves and the organization. Here we are talking about more constructive behaviors things like teamwork, innovation, empathy, and ethical conduct.

This is the point. For it is my experience that what people dislike about their work isn’t ultimately that they aren’t saving lives or enriching humanity; it is that they’re in a job that grinds them down. They work long hours in shitty environments where decency is in short supply and leaders seem unconcerned about their contributions, much less them as people. It is my experience—in companies large and small, public and private—that people simply want to work in a place where they are treated respectfully and decently, like grownups. And finally, it is my experience having built teams that operate under conditions of positive mimesis that people are not only happier and more engaged, but they also punch well above their weight in terms of results. In short, and particularly given how much time we spend at work, there are plenty of reasons to want to cultivate this sort of environment.

So how do you create a corporate culture that short circuits negative mimesis and promotes positive desires?

Architecting a Thick Desire Culture

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.

Next week, we’ll start with the first of these: the environment.

LinkedIn Roundup

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

Here are all my posts on LinkedIn.

You can also read my articles on a host of topics related to leadership and execution at my website.

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