Culture might be the most valuable intangible asset a company may own. Talent, investment and recognition flock to firms on 'best employer' lists not because of the award but because of... that thing... you know... it's hard to explain. But if you work in a place with a poor one, you know it instantly, and begin to lace up your shoes. How do the winners do it?
To my horror, many companies I work with explain that at the heart of extraordinary work culture, there is a carefully engineered matrix of delicately balanced core values. Their slide show might almost convince you for a while, but meeting people who thrive in amazing cultures reveals why they love working so hard, and it's not about the value system. It's one word, really, but that word requires a bit of context.
Top employers aren't easy-going places. They are chosen by employees, yet they include firms like Google, BCG and Salesforce, where most of us would fail to clear the bar of their very specific ideas of required behaviours and performance. Ask their executives about the core value system, KPIs, town-hall meetings, team-buildings and titles one needs to improve morale: they'll say they have all of these great things, but the secret is much simpler than that.
Top experts including Patrick Lencioni and Geoff Colvin proved that too much attention to the matrix itself diverts attention from common goals and performance. It's true that bosses are responsible for culture, but if they think of it as a separate indicator, they will maintain it only until something more urgent comes up. You need a value that takes care of itself over time. Ready for the word? It's Honesty.
Awareness: Who are you, really?
Gallup and Harvard polls confirm that bosses make or break morale. They are the top reason why people leave or stay. But they needn't design culture the way they draft contracts. Great cultures emerge when leaders honestly share their views on success, however subjective. That takes a lot of initial soul-searching, and then the courage to disclose the result. As I found out every time I saw this in the making, honest revelations were shockingly powerful.
Why don't we do it? For fear of rejection. Is your view the right one? Will the majority accept it? In fact, the secret of top employers is attracting the minority who'll love to work hard in an unusual environment, who seek refuge from normal life. They emphasise their unique features rather than accepted values. Instinctive sales stars don't pretend to build a legacy, and coders don't pretend to be visionary. They are judged by their team's success, not by their compliance with the code of culture.
Skills: Daring, sharing and caring
Does this sound easier said than done? It is. People need each other's support to talk and behave honestly. For specialists ('staff', if you wish) the challenge is expressing their strengths. Do you feel encouraged to speak your mind when someone, including your boss, gets confused or makes a mistake? Bosses face a reverse challenge: does the culture accept 'I don't know' and 'I can't do this', or are you supposed to pretend omnipotence?
Companies that 'get it' encourage honesty that seems ruthless to outsiders. Tech firms host overnight coding marathons to attract those who love that kind of pressure, and design buildings, like Google and Apple did, that instantly repulse people who won't fit in. Fashion companies encourage wiping off weeks of work for a brilliant hunch — if you don't believe 'The Devil Wears Prada', watch the documentary 'Chanel and I'. The point isn't to please everyone. It's to succeed together, which includes some people having an 'aha!' moment and moving on.
Habits: Cultural auto pilot
People love working for a mission, if they believe in it. Switching to a culture of honesty is frightening at first because it doesn't suit everyone. But remember: a one-size-fits-all culture for everyone doesn't excite anyone. Under duress, people will snap out of scripted behaviour. And while mass-designed combinations of values, mission and vision may suggest fixing 6 months of politics and resentment with 3-day team-building retreats, cultures based on sincerity silently maintain themselves on a weekly, daily and hourly basis.
That's where top employers gain a clear advantage. The days and dollars spent on scripting, sharing and practicing 'the new culture' stay with people doing their jobs. Cleaners clean, coders code, managers manage and leaders lead. Under pressure, people refer to their true nature instead of a scripted ideal, and make the mental narrative transparent. In a culture of honesty, they can accept the same from others.