Enforcing cultural change does not work

Culture is all the rage nowadays. Everyone wants to be the cool kid on the block, and with software engineering talent becoming harder to come by, it makes sense that most companies now strive for this change in culture to provide them with a clear and present differentiator from their competitors. This is especially crucial in a market where everyone seems to be competing for the same talent.

This is all very admirable; however, the problems start when you notice that the culture is more a directive from senior management to the entire company as opposed to what it should be, which is an actual mindset shift, and this anti-pattern is actually very easy to spot: when a metric is imposed on ensuring you’re “sharing”, or big management away days happen to discuss “culture”, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you’re looking to get the startup type of vibe / culture going in your workplace, a good place to start is simply with yourself.

Do small and simple things often. If it feels unnatural to you try setting a daily calendar reminder for things like:

• Speak to someone new to find out what they’re currently doing and how it’s going, if there is anything you can do to help.

• Take a new colleague everyday out for a coffee. Never underestimate the value of leaving the building if you really want to connect with someone personally.

• Make the office a better place for everyone (including yourself), by tidying up some of that clutter that everyone can see but is just hoping goes away on its own.

• Think up one way to make someone else in the office smile (tiny gestures go a LONG way).

These are just some examples, you can come up with more. There is so much more you can do just by yourself, and trust me, no one is ever going to fire you for doing these things. They simply can’t. So there’s no risk, and the upside is immense, given time this cultural mindset is addictive, people start liking each other, helping each other, and amazingly without anyone asking them to do it. Lastly, and this is very important, start making heroes out of people who deserve it, and STOP rewarding those who just shouldn’t even be acknowledged.

For example: Bill is the guy who helps prevent the system outage by using metrics and good hard work but leaves at 5pm every day and he is probably your hero. Bill will never be Jim, who was up till 5am yesterday firefighting production like he tends to do most nights. The truth is, Jim is only doing it because he likes the attention, but really his work life balance sucks and he kinda hates life.

Actually spotting Bill and what he does is not that easy, he’s normally working head down because he likes what he does but probably does not feel appreciated because he can’t figure out why Jim is doing so well and he’s not. But here’s the thing, the more you just do the small things, the more likely you are to get to know Bill, learn to love what he does and he in turn will start doing similar.

Slowly but surely that culture will become the norm and poof like magic, you achieved “cultural change”. Please don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Culture takes time, you can’t buy it and you definitely can’t enforce it.

Written by Rudi de Sousa — published for YLD.

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Written by YLDDecember 16th, 2015

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