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The Origins of Culture

In brett humphrey, culture, Blog 1 Comment

Where does your company's culture come from?

I had an interesting conversation with our HR manager the other day about how our company's culture was created and cultivated. She claimed that culture begins and ends with upper management — that culture was purely a function of the top brass, whose direction determined how it evolved. This struck me as odd, and for someone I rarely disagree with I was surprised to hear her say this so matter-of-factly. I think I always assumed that at most companies the management team was at best an well-intentioned impedance to a genuinely enjoyable company culture. Sure, the brass can institute corporate-mandated fun or other culture-rific policies, but it is my belief that the actual core culture of a company — it's soul — grows more organically based on the personalities of the people who work there.

We've all been to those painful enforced-fun team events where the office cheerleaders (often HR) enthusiastically attempt to engage the other 99% — the cynical, jaded or otherwise disinterested clockpunchers. It's a sad affair, but how did their company's culture get to such a lowly state? When did their company's soul get ripped out and put on a spike - a shell mockery of management's genuine but perhaps misguided intentions?

I think it's because you can't mandate culture. Management can't be responsible for creating fun, or inventing culture - at least not directly. Maybe the best management can do to foster a healthy culture is remove obstacles for people who want to pursue their interests and be themselves at work - to provide a venue for people to create their own culture? If the true origin of culture comes from the people that live it then naturally only their own passions will promote a lasting healthy culture, regardless of what management tries to implement.

At Fairway we have a rather informal and casual culture; people have lots of different interests and are free to pursue them. One aspect that I really enjoy is our lunch culture. It's good to take a break, get out in the sun, and enjoy each other's company. That's easier said than done for a lot of companies, particularly those located in some office park hellscape, but even so, having a few nice neighborhood restaurants nearby helps. For managers interested in their company's culture, lunch is one of the best places to take its pulse. Do you notice people sitting around sullen and silent, wary of their normal urge to take cynical shots at the company or complain about their co-workers (or you)? Or do they laugh and talk about their diverse (or in our case, uniformly nerdy) array of interests and passions? Employee chatter is culture's secret-sauce, and knowing what's going on over broken bread is important if you hope to understand or influence your company's culture.

But, I digress. It may be a little scary for management to think that they have little control over their own corporate culture. But total control over company culture is an illusion, which is my point. Sure, you can tend the soil, sprinkle some water, even rip out some weeds, but you'll never be able to create the seeds.

So what do you think? Where does your company's culture come from?

Management or the masses? Trickle-down or grass roots?

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