The Culture Equation

April 22, 2021

The Culture Equation: Cu = Cl(Co) + Cl(Ch)

There’s a lot of extra stress being dragged into work these days.  The pandemic and accompanying shut downs add plenty of extra demand on us.  A healthy workplace is always important, but for most people it’s more important than usual now. That means any small dysfunctions at work like distrust, feeling unappreciated, or uncertainty about standards will be heightened as staff attempt to manage the additional bandwidth demanded of them.  Limited attention for additional change may make job hopping less likely in the short term, but as basic life stuff becomes more routine again, your staff will be branded by the impact work had on them during this time.   

Leading a thriving work culture is a huge, ambiguous chore in any state. It’s difficult to know what issues deserve attention, where to compromise, and the fluff that can be cut from all the noise on the subject. Protecting the goodwill within the organization is critical, while the demand for success on financial and other measures doesn’t yield. Leaders have a lot at stake. 

Care – The Foundation

You can try to fake it, but it probably won’t work.  If you want a culture that fosters high performance, an organic appeal to the best talent, and a highly engaged team, then it starts with one fundamental: a leader that genuinely cares. Your work culture will mimic the things that are valued by it’s primary leaders.  

If your primary concern is building your resume, money, or getting other people to do your bidding, start by assessing what you want your legacy to be. Get grounded first. It’s harder than ever to be successful insincerely. Building a phenomenal culture is no exception. But if you truly care about delivering great results to your customers and fostering a great place to work, you’re ready to build on a solid foundation.

Clarity – The Multiplier

It sure would be nice if workplace culture was some kind of linear measure like the setting on the office thermostat. It’s more like “love” in a relationship, or “success” in a career, with each instance full of nuance. A helpful framework to give substance to workplace culture is what I call the Culture Equation. Workplace Culture is the sum of your Clarity about Competency standards and your Clarity about Character values.  More simply expressed:

Culture = Clarity(Competence) + Clarity(Character)

Uncertainty brings out the narrators in us. In the absence of a story we create one. So when the criteria for hiring, firing, and other big changes are left ambiguous, the story-based mechanism in our minds go to work. The impact of your standards, vision and values are multiplied (or limited) by how clearly your team understands them. 

Consider these situations:

  • You’re sitting at your desk when a calendar invite for a “Welcome Lunch” arrives.  You’re asked to come get acquainted with a new hire to the team. It’s the first you’ve heard of it. Immediately you envision what role they’ll play and a scenario that impacts your goals and influence. 
  • You’re at home over the weekend.  A friend from work texts you and asks if you knew anything about another colleague being terminated.  You hadn’t heard.  Your mind effortlessly speculates, about why it happened, how it was done, and who might be next.   

Clarity is the great mulitplier. When big decisions are made without clarity the cultural impact is lost. Conversely, big changes are the window of opportunity to create anchors in the mind of a team of people.  Even when committed to communicating, it’s easier with positive changes, like hiring new people, expanding a project, or upgrading the benis. But great leaders shape organizational culture the most in the worst circumstances; when budgets are reduced; when a customer sues you; when a coworker dies. Those are unforgettable experiences. People will always remember how they felt about their leaders and about the organization during those moments. 

Perhaps nothing says more about your company culture on a regular basis than how and why people are terminated. There will be a story in the minds of all stakeholders.  So, when those unfortunate times come, be sure your team understands the relevant details.

A point of clarity about clarity – Clarity is not measured by the words said, the platform used, or the nonverbals.  Clarity is measured by what is understood and what is felt.  That is the multiplier that will define your culture standards. 

Competence – The Deliverable

An organization that’s broke is rarely the kind of place in which anyone wants to work long term. Underachievement breeds more of the same. On the other hand, there’s nothing better for the morale of a team than to achieve goals together. It doesn’t matter if it’s overcoming a challenge together or ambitiously hitting new highs. What matters is achieving. A talented team that can produce results is critical for a great culture, in good times and bad.

Most of us are compelled by a variety of incentives to focus on competency.  As technology leaders our tendency is to prioritize skills when building and promoting teams. The exceptions are where there are risks.  

In teams with low accountability for specific results, the accompanying lack of accomplishment can be a crushing demoralizer. People want to know where they stand, and they want to be valued for meeting goals and standards.  

Another risk can be hiding poor performance.  Teams that succeed collectively can both hide poor performers either out of sympathy or indifference.  As a team comes to understand the tolerance of poor performance, the tendency will be for the general standard to fall, creating cascading detriment to strong culture. 

Character – The Vibe

The character of an organization isn’t just about how well they obey the rules. It’s about what matters being front and center.  It’s trendy to talk about collaboration or having fun at work, but those are not and should not be every organization’s core values.  Even within a larger organization, a subsection may embody some unique priorities that pertain specifically to them.  

There’s a universe of content written about how virtues impact culture.  What’s important to the Culture Equation is balance.  Like any equation, it has to add up.  In the Culture Equation it is a matter of comparing the character values that matter most against the competency standards that matter most.  The risk is in overvaluing one in a way that compromises the other.  The classic example is the brilliant jerk, who is exceptionally competent but impossible to work with.  There may be a few places where that’s tolerable, but in a customer facing role or when collaboration is critical, that’s an obvious imbalance. 

So What? – The Application

Big changes are where culture is made.  Hiring, firing, new business models, crisis, promotions, budget cuts, large investments, etc. When leaders are making moves, they’re making culture, whether they’re attentive to it or not. So be attentive. Consider the Culture Equation framework in these moments. 

“What are we saying about our competency standards with this decision?”

“How clear are our values being understood in that move?”

Plug the variables in as you lead, and make sure they add up to the environment you intend to produce. 

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