How strong is your workplace culture? Very strong? Is that a good thing? "Strong" is a word you’ll often hear championed in the workplace, and if you ask executives if they want different aspects of their company to be strong they’ll nod vigorously in response. But "strength" is a modifier: strong growth, strong quarterly reports; strong recruitment. You’ll get a more tepid response from executives when you mention strong competition, or strong staff turnover rates. So while you may want a strong culture, it’s just as important that it's a positive culture.
When evaluating your culture, you need to determine where it lies on two axes before you decide where you want to move it.
Culture on two axes
Axis 1: Strong to Weak – The intensity with which culture affects behavior. The pull is either significant (strong influence) or a small (weak influence). Think back on the groups or organizations you’ve been a part of whose influence you really remember – your summer camp, soccer team, or the group of analysts with whom you started your career. Now think of all the other groups, the ones where your memories are fleeting at best. Were their cultures positive? Negative? It’s hard to remember, and doesn’t really matter because the culture was too weak to make a difference. It can be tempting to classify weak culture as a good thing: "people aren’t angry with each other, so things must be going well." But a weak culture is quietly debilitating – it can leave a workplace soulless. Not being angry may just be a symptom of people who don’t care. And the feeling of tranquility that indifference brings is like a thin sheet of ice – it can only last for so long. When changes come – and they will – you'll want to know what’s underneath you when the thin ice breaks.
Axis 2: Positive to Negative – The degree to which culture pulls people toward certain types of behavior. Is it constructive, affirmatively affecting others? Or is it toxic and alienating? Do interactions – ranging from intense and work-focused to casual chats – leave people energized and enthusiastic, or surly and despondent? The best cultures inspire people to do their best work, support teammates, and make a difference for those around them. Organizations with a negative culture drag people down. Work becomes a place they dread, and they spend their time searching for better opportunities for themselves, not the company.
Before you move to change your culture, you first need to take stock of where on the two axes your culture lies. Most organizations dream of a culture that is positive and strong, but few organizations end up there organically. It takes effort, reflection, and persistence. In an upcoming blog on culture, we’ll show you how to map your culture along these axes, and we’ll talk you through where you are, what that means for your workplace in the short- and long-term, and how to get from where you are to where you want to be.