Workplace culture is one of the key ingredients that separates great businesses from average businesses.
You don’t just have to take my word for it, either: one Harvard study (which included over 200 companies in its research) concluded that a strong company culture increased net income by 756% over an eleven year period compared to companies with weak culture.
Pretty astounding, right? What business wouldn’t want that!
But this begs the question… What determines “strong” from “weak” company culture?
The concept of “culture” in a team or at work gets a lot of lip service, but little concrete action or true consideration. And, it’s often confused with perks like team outings or potlucks.
Although happy hour with colleagues is fun and can foster closer connections (and sometimes embarrassing memories), those moments are fleeting and don’t often translate back into the day-to-day work environment.
So, what exactly is “workplace culture,” and what impact does it have on a team? How do you build a team culture that people want to be a part of?
Let’s start by defining what culture isn’t.
Culture is not your company brand message, what you wear to work, bagels in the break room, or even the pleasantries you dole out to your co-workers.
Those help to make the workday more predictable and even more enjoyable, but they don’t have anything to do with culture.
Culture is about how you live out your company core values, mission, and vision. Culture determines how employees interact with one another and hold each other accountable, and how a company makes decisions as a team. Culture is about establishing a “group trait” or a group “DNA” that creates purposeful interactions to achieve goals only possible through collaboration and asymmetrical thinking.
Here are the key components that form the building blocks of exceptional company culture…
A strong sense of safety built through bonds of belonging.
When researchers have studied the best performing teams in the military, business, and sports, they found a crystal clear theme that separated world-class teams from mediocre teams:
Great teams have a culture of authentic trust.
Trust, as it turns out, is the foundation for all other aspects of great team culture.
And here’s another important distinction: talking about trust and actually building authentic trust are two different things. Building trust isn’t about corporate weekends with “trust falls” and campfire chats.
Employees need to feel a strong sense of belonging to feel safe. Nothing is more destabilizing than feeling like an outsider looking in. From school age onward, we have a strong desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and in particular, part of a successful and motivating group.
Belonging is driven by small, consistent day-to-day actions, rather than any grand gestures.
According to Daniel Coyle, author of “The Culture Code,” the triggers for fostering belonging include (but are not limited to) working in close proximity to others, deliberate eye contact and undivided attention during conversations, lots of short discussions without long speeches, small courtesies like “thank-you’s,” humor, attentive listening, and asking LOTS of questions.
When a team regularly makes each other feel like they belong and are a part of something important, it creates a level of connection that allows a feeling of TRUST to flourish.
A company culture that has strong trust allows for open and candid conversations to happen on a regular basis without employees feeling attacked or threatened. It allows managers and co-workers to “confront the gaps” that exist between company goals and current team performance.
As a result, your team can speak openly about how to improve and solve complex problems with the success of the TEAM as the focus.
Holding each other accountable to a high standard with candid conversations.
If you don’t know the standards and goals of your position, how are you going to know when you succeed or fail?
Accountability is another key aspect of a strong company culture that’s built into every layer of the company. Accountability should know no hierarchy, but instead be part of the ethos of the company itself.
Employees want to know that they are part of the group, that the group is special, that the group has high standards, and that everyone around them believes they can reach those standards.
Nobody wants to be part of a culture of apathy or mediocrity; however, in many companies, the lack of objective data tracking, objective goal setting, and lack of candid conversations about performance create a culture of “good enough.”
Individual and team performance should be talked about regularly. This could be in weekly one-on-one meetings and weekly, all-hands staff meetings. If you’re waiting until yearly reviews to provide feedback, it will be too late, and suggestions for improvement will fall on deaf ears.
For palpable, candid accountability, every individual employee needs to be aware that receiving feedback from others means that their team believes that they can reach the highest of standards. They need to know: “You belong, and I believe that you can do this.”
Real traction can take place when each employee willingly holds their peers accountable, and it doesn’t always have to come from management.
Humility and vulnerability to get it wrong the first time in order to get it right.
There is no place for ego in strong company cultures.
Companies that outperform others are world-class problem solvers. They are able to synthesize vast amounts of information, use empirical creativity to look at the data from many different angles, and form creative solutions to complex problems.
The only way that happens is when a company has a culture that accepts failure as part of the process.
According to the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, “All our movies suck at first.”
A strong team member is one that is willing to create solutions to problems even when they aren’t fully formed or buttoned up.
When a team lacks trust and a sense of belonging, employees will often stay silent and keep their ideas hidden because of the fear of getting it wrong or others finding out “they don’t have it all figured out.”
Imagine how many industry-changing ideas are kept hidden away in the brains of your employees that just don’t feel safe enough to bring them up at meetings…
It’s essential to build a culture that’s open to relentless curiosity and can accept that failure is part of the creative process. When your team can willingly share their ideas without the fear of ridicule or judgment, you’ll have a truly passionate and engaged team.
With all of this being said, keep in mind that company culture will not change overnight.
It takes time to build a strong culture with foundations in trust, belonging, candid accountability, belief in the highest of standards, and humility.
Stop wasting time on fancy corporate outings and “perks” — do the hard work to build a culture that can truly make an impact. You’ll know when you’ve built it.
The energy and passion in your team will be palpable, and other people will want to be a part of it. Your company may just be the first place an employee truly feels like they belong, and it may be the first place where they feel that there’s a team around them that believes in their unlimited potential and will work alongside them to help them achieve it.