What We Talk About When We Talk About Culture

Our baselines for moving forward in work culture and communication.

Kids playing four-square on a cement court
Four-square

For several summers in college, I was a camp counselor at a camp where four-square was a wildly-beloved activity. At any hour of the day, there were kids playing four-square in the pavilion. Each time a group gathered, the first few minutes before competition were spent spelling out the parameters: No blocks. No over-hands. Outside lines are in. Inside lines are out. No bobbles. No slams. The rules of engagement were established so everyone could begin play from the same area of understanding.

Along those lines, here are four baselines for our discussion about work culture moving forward:

  1. Culture Matters

Every team and every workplace has and participates in a culture, whether cognizant of it or not. A team can phone it in on the culture piece and let whatever happens in that area manifest by chance. Given the tangible, negative impact poor culture can have on an entire company, however, that’s a huge and unnecessary risk. Good culture takes intention and effort. If you’ve ever worked on a team with a great culture, you probably know the feeling it creates: the energy and drive it empowers in its members. But if you’ve ever worked on a team with poor or negative culture, you probably know EVEN MORE powerfully the damage that can do. Culture is the secret elixir when it’s good and the silent killer when it’s bad.

As mentioned in our initial post, a good culture is not about making the workplace a land of unfettered happiness and kittens and sunshine and ping-pong and singalongs. A good, strong culture is about tackling the hard stuff. It’s resilient. It has depth. While culture may not have deadlines or go live moments like other aspects of work, strong culture is not a “nice to have;” it’s essential to the longevity and health of a team. Culture matters.

2. Culture Can Change

Culture is not a one-time purchase, a sunk cost, a fixed commodity to be ordered and hung on the wall. Culture requires constant attention and repeat reinforcement to strengthen and shape. It’s the oak seedling that needs to be nurtured so it grows with your company.

The good news? A poor culture is not doomed to be terrible forever; it can change, with intention and effort and time, just as a tree with damage can be pruned and tended and nursed back to strength. Conversely, a good culture that is neglected can wither from inattention and poor nutrients, especially during challenging times.

Culture is a living organism that needs care and nourishment. It requires constant little nudges and cues that push it along and strengthen its bonds. That can be daunting and frustrating, especially in the midst of an already challenging work environment. Plus, shifting a culture doesn’t necessarily have clear milestones. It doesn’t adhere to deadlines and it pays little attention to the fiscal quarter. But despite these obstacles, it can change.

3. Culture Can Be Measured

Perhaps one of the reasons culture gets overlooked or undervalued is historically it hasn’t fit into a spreadsheet. It’s hard to measure concretely and the language around it is often emotional and intangible. It lives in the soft sciences. It’s squishy.

But that’s changing. We know that some of the foundational components and “touches” of culture (a sense of belonging, a reinforced sense of trust and vulnerability, etc.) are communicated in certain, measurable ways. With so much of our work communication and interactions now digital, we now have the option of quantifying those touchpoints to gather data and insight into the metrics of a team’s culture.

With this information and the extensive research ongoing in this space, we can now leverage real tools to help teams become stronger and more resilient, better applying the unique gifts of the team’s individual members. What was once seen as intangible is now measurable.

4. Culture is Critical to Face Challenges

Never is culture more critical than when an organization or team faces a real challenge. Those “good culture” benefits of being resilient and able to solve tough problems together come to the fore when a team is deeply tested. The sense of trust and vulnerability encouraged in a good culture allow the team to adapt and forge through difficulties together. Individuals within the team feel valued for their contribution, but they also feel a sense of responsibility and shared fate with others on the team. This connectedness gives impetus to find a solution to a challenge, not just walk away and abandon the team. When facing a problem, access to limitless resources is arguably not as valuable as buy-in from a team united by a strong culture. Culture is critical when a team encounters challenges.

So there you have it, a baseline for our ongoing discussion of work culture. No bobbles. No slams. With this baseline established, let’s dig deeper into strengthening work culture, especially in the context of challenges like rapidly scaling teams and remote work, where it may feel like outside lines are suddenly out and inside lines are suddenly in.


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