When your manager is consistently late to your 1:1s (or cancels them) and then talks the whole time.
When promotions happen randomly instead of being based on any of the defined promotional criteria.
When you’re part of an interview panel and the hiring manager says a candidate isn’t a good fit because they can’t “see themselves having a beer with the candidate.”
When you walk by your company’s core values hanging on the wall and think more about how cool the design is instead of how the values show up in your daily work.
When your coworker is recognized for producing results even though he went around people to get the job done instead of collaborating with the team.
Does any of this sound familiar? This seems like little stuff at first, but that little stuff is often not discussed. The little stuff festers until a company realizes it’s losing people and morale is low. Then, little stuff becomes the big stuff. And the big stuff becomes your company culture.
So, when is it time to speak up?
Every leader, every employee, and every company is at a crossroads. There has never been a more critical moment for companies to double down their focus on culture. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen that we, as a society and as human beings, will no longer tolerate this kind of behavior.
Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU, co-host of the Pivot podcast, and prolific tweeter, says, “…The lines between vision, bullsh*t, and fraud are pretty narrow,” when describing the fall of a well-known unicorn company.
As I stated in my 2018 HBR article Why Great Employees Leave “Great Cultures,” culture is a system of behaviors, processes, and practices. We know what a healthy company culture looks and feels like. We also know what an unhealthy one looks and feels like. Yet, when we have that realization, we often don’t feel safe enough to speak up.
One reason people don’t speak up is the significant risk of doing so. Employees have seen their colleagues receive poor reviews, get passed up for promised promotions, and even fired after going against the status quo. The problem is so pervasive that we even have organizations like All Voices and Empowerwork.org that provide a safe space for employees to safely report harassment, bullying, culture issues, bias, or other concerns.
More and more employees are unwilling to tolerate toxic cultures. They are willing to risk their jobs if that means staying true to their values for themselves and the company. As we hear an increasing number of stories about toxic work cultures — big and small — all of us must recognize our power and responsibility to show that there is a better way.
How do we take action?
Employees are more savvy than ever about what it takes to build great cultures. Consequently, they are more willing to take an active part in building them. The first step to taking action is to understand the misconceptions about company culture that have been embedded in the fabric of our work experience for years.
Below are five misconceptions about company culture in contrast to the reality, and an action anyone can take, at any level, within any function, toward building and experiencing a healthy company culture.
1. Misconception: Talking about culture equates to building culture.
Some leaders believe that simply talking about company core values without acting on them is sufficient for building culture.
Doing nothing more with culture than making well-designed posters will result in your core values being hollow and disingenuous. Culture can be reinforced through the processes and, most importantly, people. It is strengthened (or weakened) by every decision made. And, culture and people processes are interdependent components in building a full-scale and effective, intentional culture strategy. One cannot exist without the other.
Leadership can — and should — actively express culture every day through behaviors. If you don’t have core values at your company, ask for help to define them. If you have them, find out how they are reinforced through behaviors, people processes, and practices.
2. Misconception: People processes don’t matter until your company is large.
Since people processes are a big part of culture, some companies think they don’t need to implement these processes until either a company is larger — around 300 employees — or until they start seeing issues. Only then will they will hire an HR team to manage it.
We know that behind every business problem is a people problem. A reactive culture will likely stay reactive, always struggling to get ahead of issues. So, why do startups wait so long before they think about building people processes?
The benefits of people processes are not often immediate. In today’s high stakes, fast-moving world of business, we often lose sight of anything that offers delayed gratification. Yet, without people processes driving a great culture, what’s the point of short-term gains when all of your great people leave in the long run?
Start with the hiring process. Find out if your organization’s core values are integrated into your interview questions. Make sure your interview team understands their role in identifying candidates who not only have the skills and experience necessary for the role, but also know how to ask behavioral questions related to the organization’s values.
3. Misconception: A great culture will organically evolve from a great founding team or be a natural byproduct of a successful business.
Some companies believe that their culture will naturally emerge as their business grows, and a successful culture doesn’t need to be developed and implemented by leadership.
Building a great culture requires an intentional strategy with appropriately allocated resources. Leaders must establish company’s core values and communicate them clearly to your workforce to reinforce the behaviors you want to see day-to-day. A great culture drives a great company; it is not a byproduct of success.
Make sure culture is not just owned by HR or, worse, a Chief Culture Officer. A strong culture is intentionally built from the bottom up and top down and includes all leadership — not just your HR department. Ensure your company culture is owned and reinforced daily by all employees.
4. Misconception: Perks create company culture. HR manages it.
Many companies think that offering corporate discounts is enough to create a company culture, and it falls squarely on the shoulders of HR teams to manage it.
This is a classic misunderstanding of what drives culture (and, therefore, often a waste of resources). Company culture must connect with employees on an emotional and human level and speak to their personal needs. Great employees don’t care about the free beer and yoga classes as much as they care about clear expectations, what your company stands for, and a personal growth path.
Review your organizational values. Talk with leadership about values and behaviors that resonate most with you and align with your company’s goals. Then, choose values together that you want to focus on and/or improve upon.
5. Misconception: Once an organization creates their values, they can’t be changed.
Core values are the foundation of your company culture and define the behavior of your employees every day. However, as your company evolves, your culture and values will too.
Values are not static. Just like we have to continue to review our strategy, we have to continue to iterate components of culture and the learning that maps to it. Your workforce is always changing, along with your market and your audience. Don’t be afraid to let your core values evolve with them.
Find out when your company’s core values were first created. How were they integrated into the people processes, if at all? Maybe it’s time for a refresh if people are not familiar with them and/or they don’t represent what the company is about today.
So, what next?
In the height of a changing economic climate that aims to put people first, we are resetting and restructuring how we build our organizations. Change isn’t going to happen immediately. But just like impactful and long-lasting learning happens in micro-moments within the context of our work, so does impactful and long-lasting change. The most innovative companies continue to iterate and pivot all the time.
To eradicate toxic environments, we need to continue to break down the misconceptions about culture. To do this, it takes a system. Not just one leader. Not a vision or mission. Not one great initiative. Not motivational quotes or core values on the wall. Not great employee perks. Not just one person who is willing to be the sacrificial lamb.
We need to build organizational systems that reinforce and even encourage employees to ask questions, push back against the status quo, get curious, and most of all, take action on something they believe will help themselves and the company.
Melissa Daimler has been an executive at high-growth, iconic companies for over twenty years. She is the founder and principal of Daimler Partners, a coaching and consulting company focused on helping leaders operationalize healthy cultures.