Forget Culture. Focus on Community Instead.

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

A couple of years ago, we lost our company’s cultural values.  Poof. Gone. Missing.


To be fair, we were a very young company, we had put together our list of cultural values at an offsite, then our work, growth, clients, and excitement of building a new company kind of became more important than that bunch of words on a flip chart.  And, our company culture was great. We were aligned to our mission, attracted and retained the right kind of people, and collectively prioritized the values that we knew were important to our work. But, we couldn’t - for the life of us - remember where our official list of cultural values was (knowledge management in a start-up is an entirely different blog post….).


Sigh.  


This misplacing of our values appeared to be problematic because we are all obsessed with company culture and cultural values.  One of the first things the new CEO of Uber, Dara K, did when he took over from Travis K, was change the company’s cultural values.   We all talk ad nauseam about how great our company culture is to new recruits.  We paste our cultural values all over our walls. We call our culture our competitive advantage.  We have culture day. We give cultural interviews. We pay consultants lots and lots of money to help us articulate our cultural values. We get a tattoo to show our commitment to our company culture (no lie - I know someone who did this!).   


Ownership. Empathy.  Get it done mentality.  Curiosity. Efficiency. Customer-centric. Stewardship. Integrity. Passion. Collaboration.  Kindness. Move fast. Accountability. Blah blah blah. Courage. Teamwork. Honesty. Respect. Humility.

 

The list goes on and on and on and after a while it becomes hard to distinguish what these actually mean in practice.  I’ve personally spent a whole bunch of time defining cultural values and working with managers to understand how they can build these cultural values into their day-to-day work.  People know a good culture when they experience it, but something always falls short in the exercise of defining culture and the exercise of continuously nurturing it. Culture becomes words on a page and managers struggle with how to actually build structures or norms that embody that culture.   Like Halo Top, we leave the process of defining our culture a little unsatisfied, but not quite sure why.


Culture becomes words on a page and managers struggle with how to actually build structures or norms that embody that culture.

I’m not demeaning the importance of culture or asking you to throw out everything culture-related (in fact, I care a lot about culture as seen in exhibit a: last fall’s post on culture).   Rather, I’m asking for you to think about culture differently. When the start-up I was in lost our cultural values, I realized I had been thinking about the creation and embodiment of culture in the wrong way.*


To be a great manager, don’t focus on building a great culture, focus on building a great community.  A community is a living breathing thing that every single person in the company is part of and responsible for nurturing.  A true community means no one is excluded and that everyone has a place. A community brings people together around a shared vision or a shared purpose.

 

Think about the best communities you’ve ever been a part of - a college sports team, a church, a neighborhood, or an alumni group.  When you’re part of a great community, you feel a strong sense of belonging, you care deeply about the other members of the community, and you also have a set of clear community values.  You give back to your community and focus on ways to make the community grow. You relish being part of it, not just understanding or abiding by it. Community makes you feel. Culture makes you act.  


Okay - so how as a manager do you build community?  


1. Well, first here’s a little definition of what a community is to get everyone on the same page:  


  • Community means people are (and feel!)  included and everyone has a place

  • Community means all members are responsible for building and nurturing it.

  • Community means there is a bigger purpose or bigger goal to being part of it.

2. Try replacing “culture” with “community” in discussions about values, processes, etc., etc. For example:

  • What do you want your community to look like?

  • What do you value about the community?

  • What are the activities, behaviors or processes that happen in the community to help the community thrive?

A great example of this in action is how onboarding happens.  A clear, structured, onboarding process is a core part of a company’s culture and super duper important for the success of an individual.  But you don’t onboard someone into a community, you welcome them. So, what can you add to your onboarding process to actually make it a welcoming process? (hint: you still have all of the steps, but you approach it very differently…)


Another great example is around diversity.  Many companies have diversity as a cultural value.  But what does that mean and how do you actually live that?  But, a diverse community that is inclusive feels much more tangible.  Employees can easily point to and act on ways to make others feel included.  


3. Actively and immediately involve your team in the creation of community.  As stated in the definition, community is owned by every single member of the group.  Ask your team how they think they can strengthen community. Empower them to make changes that build up the community.  


4. And lastly, when implementing internal initiatives, processes or activities, ask yourself:  how does this serve our community? Will this initiative strengthen or weaken our community?   


The sociologist, Robert Putnam, warns that the demise of community social structures in the United States has contributed to the demise of democracy.  We long for connection, but have fewer avenues to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. For many of us, we fit Putnam’s example in that we are not part of a bowling league or church group, and as such, the closest we have to a true community is our workplace.   We might say that we stay at a company because we love the culture - but what we really love are the people who surround us. We leave organizations when we don’t feel connected to a community. So, as a manager, focus on building community, not culture!


Want to read more on this topic (or haven't been fully convinced yet of the importance of community)? Check out the HBR article: Communities of Practice.


TL;DR

  • Over time, culture loses meaning in an organization.

  • It's especially difficult for managers to clearly understand ways that they can build their culture into their day-to-day operations.

  • A change of perspective about cultures comes when we think about community instead - how to build community and what our work community means to us.

  • Communities include all individuals, have a common purpose, and every member of the community has ownership of it.


* Additional Musings on Culture

For all the nerds out there...What are the typical ways to think about culture you might ask?


There are two competing theories about organizational culture.  The first is that people behave in a certain way because of the situation that they're in - i.e., the organizational culture drives how people behave (seminal book on this theory here).  Many of my blog posts have focused on the importance of processes and structure to support culture (e.g., interview structure, onboarding process)  - that approach very much follows the first theory.


The second school of thought is that an organizational culture is driven by the individual people who are in it - i.e., that individuals drive how the organization behaves (seminal article on this theory here).  This is why recruiting the right people is SO important to an organization - each individual we bring into our company shapes the culture in a material way, so the risk of bringing in the wrong person is huge.  And, this is why the CEO or founder of an organization has such an outsized influence on what the culture of an organization is.


[For the visual learners...]


The reality is that organizational culture is a bit of both theories, and to impact organizational culture, you need to take a bit from column A and a bit from column B.  Which brings us full circle back to cultural values. We articulate our cultural values (and therefore the people in the company influence what those values are), build processes and structures to embed them into our day-to-day, and recruit more people who we think embody those values (and the cycle starts again.)

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