It is not good enough to simply talk about culture

By Howard Feldman, Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis

The conversation would follow the same pattern. “Howard,” my wife would say, “I heard about an amazing marriage-enrichment programme. Can I register for us?”

What she really was asking, is if I would be prepared to commit 3 hours for the next 12 Wednesday evenings to the hell of listening to couples complain about each other. “What if we enrich our marriage by going out to dinner instead?” I would invariably ask. Which is what we would do, and what I suspect was her plan in the first place.

Sometimes it is better to do than to talk about doing.

Take company culture for example. Whereas it is no doubt important to understand and recognise the realities of a work environment as well as keeping an eye on the aspirational goals, it is not good enough to simply talk about it. While culture workshops are lovely for those presenting them and do serve to articulate some of the ideals, nothing talks to company culture like not talking about it.

Ahead of a recent team initiative that I was involved in, we debated this issue. Should we include a panel discussion on “culture”? Given that many people continue to work remotely and that several employees who had not been with the company prior to COVID, we considered if it was worth spending some time on this subject.

Our conclusion? Absolutely not. If a company get-together didn’t display the culture in every other panel, if each cup of coffee wasn’t infused with it and if the atmosphere, approach, and language didn’t communicate the culture, then we would have failed. If we needed to talk about it and spell it out rather that live it, then we would need to look at the authenticity of all we espoused.

Company culture speaks to the values of the organisation. These can be broad as they include “core values”, “aspirational values” and “permission to play values”.  They also encompass “unwritten ground rules” which speak to the undocumented, often unsaid behaviour of those in the organisation.

Unsurprisingly, many companies will – in theory at least – list things like integrity, honesty, worth ethic as their core values, when in fact they are closer to “permission to play” values. Permission to play what is required as a minimum for a person to be part of the team. These could include a certain qualification, experience, but also the basics of decency and respect. Core values and aspirational values can often overlap as it different times as do the unwritten ground rules, which is where the magic happens.

A useful way to determine culture is to start a sentence with the words “around here”. For example: “Around here we set each other up for success” or “around here we keep each other in the loop.” Making these known, is valuable as it provides language to a person who might not be able to articulate disappointment in someone not living up to the values and the company. And whereas they need to be communicated, living them is infinitely more important than talking about them.

A friend of mine holds a senior position in an international medical supplies company. The attrition rate of their staff is very high with 60% leaving in less than two years. When I asked why he thinks that is the case, he replied: “We spend so much time patting ourselves on the back and talking about our ‘company way’, but the reality on the ground is completely juxtaposed to these claims. Until we accept that we need to bridge the gap between what we say and what we do, we will continue to have this problem.”

Marriage enrichment and marriage counselling have a place. Challenges need to be identified, communicated and resolved. A shared strategy is critical, and couples need to make sure that values and aspirations align. But once that is done, it is infinitely more beneficial and way more fun to go out for a great meal and a magnificent glass of wine than spending another Wednesday listening to someone complain about their spouse.