How might we make every teammate a Custodian of Culture?

6 minute read
Two people collaborating online1

Company culture often feels like an amorphous topic. Ask, “Whom does it belong to?” and you’re snowed under an avalanche of “it depends”.

What, then, is a clarity-led way to navigate this space? We begin by bolting down company culture.

"Company culture" can be defined as an ever-changing set of values-based behaviours that empower us to set and reach high expectations, be authentic without fear, and find our space within the organisation. This could be true of performance conversations and also of daily lunch discussions.

So how do we know what the organisation’s culture is?

We dive headlong into the cause of the confusion we just encountered. Please meet the opposing forces that create the eddies in the fluid flow of organisation culture’s peaceful existence.

On one end are the organisation’s wishes for a specific culture and shifts in that culture in specific ways over time.

When an organisation is about 10 people strong, culture would mean being scrappy and taking ownership of everything. Everything is everyone’s job, from craft to business to ordering water canisters for the office. The values at play are high ownership, high energy, and growth based on common beliefs. When that same organisation grows to be 30 people strong, values would change to respect, clarity of boundaried areas of impact, space and agency to learn and apply learnings rapidly and grow.

On the other end is the reality that individual users of organisation culture experience it with reference to their own values and experiences.

An early career person might believe that they need to balance learning with side projects and time to meet friends and go into town to see and be seen. A new parent might want to optimise for delivery while reserving their highest energies for their child.

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So, company culture changes based on the values anchoring them — and these individual values certainly change with life circumstances. All these changing forces bump up against each other and create those eddies.

The good news is: Opposing forces are natural and exist everywhere. No, seriously. From electromagnetic and magnetic forces to human musculature expanding and contracting during exercise, the bittersweet emotion when you bid a colleague goodbye but also are excited for them… we could go on but won’t.

Whom does company culture belong to?

You may say it belongs to the leaders. If that were the only truth, then leaders would constantly drive culture with scant regard for the team’s needs. That will render the organisation quite rigid.

You may say it belongs to the People function. While the responsibility of maintaining a strong culture rolls up to the People function and they take accountability for it, it is not owned by them, because they are usually a small percentage of people partaking of the culture.

You may say it belongs to the constituent teams. You would be closest to the truth, but they shouldn’t be burdened with the task of noticing changes and maintaining culture. That should rest with the People team.

A healthy and functioning culture should belong to everyone to varying degrees.

So how do we make everyone a custodian of culture? By creating a pyramid, of sorts, of needs that cater to everyone.

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Level 1: Psychological safety

People should know that they have psychological safety. A quick check for this: Look at how often people pull the legs of their leaders and folks in positions of power. When you see that happening, then you know that people feel safe enough to be heard and be true to themselves.

Another check: Do people act as though they have the right to make mistakes? And when they do, will they have support from folks higher up in the organisation? If yes, there is psychological safety within those teams.

Level 2: Accountability

A level up from psychological safety is accountability. The difference between accountability, ownership and responsibility is that accountability is typically situation-dependent — and that situation is usually a negative one where something did not go as per plan. When that happens, the person with accountability owns up to the situation, makes the required amends and talks to others to see what they could have done differently.

For instance, after a long hiatus of working remotely, everyone meets in the office and a couple of extremely excited people drown out the voices of the quieter or newer ones in meetings. Realising this later either with a nudge from someone or on their own, they reach out and apologise to the impacted folk and commit to more sensitivity the next time. They may even ask what support impacted folks would like the next time they meet.

Level 3: Learning and growth

The next stage is for learning and growth to be embedded into the culture. Are individuals allowed to grow at their own pace, respectful of their needs?

For instance, is there the option to slow down if there are big personal events, like weddings, relocations, having children, or distressing ones like illness in the family, burnout or mental health outage? Can people see that they have their hand firmly on the steering wheel of their career? Is there a culture where learning is encouraged and growth is celebrated?

One way in which we check this routinely at Obvious is through our 6-weekly eNPS surveys, which ask all questions on the spectrum shared above. This way, we get a real sense of the pulse of the organisation, take corrective action, and hit the brakes so we don’t slide gradually towards chaos and cultural decay.

What could be your North Star for culture and values?

This is a question to ask yourself in the context of your organisation.

For us at Obvious, these are: respect for the individual and respect for expertise.

As we are focused on craft, engineers, designers and writers experience this as the primary cultural landmark and appreciate that they have the freedom to learn and grow their own craft and practice.

The focus on respect for the individual shows up as boundaries being respected. It also shows up as there being a conscious individual and collective responsibility to, as a bare minimum, not be sexist, ableist, ageist, casteist… (add here the variety of ways in which to discriminate).

Respect for each other as people and professionals shows up in our practices, like:

  • speaking the language of business during informal conversations, meetings and calls (so we don’t show region or language preferences),
  • making sure small talk with new folk does not include questions like “Who else is there at home?” or “Where are you originally from?” that inadvertently needs revealing family details, region, marital status, etc.

Folks can share what they want of their personal information at their own pace and more naturally than we tend to in Indian social settings.

The final word

Culture isn’t anymore about the snacks in the office or the sit-stand desks or the locations and frequency of offsites. It might have been in the past, but in 2022, it is definitely about the things that matter most:

  • Do the least tenured people, the youngest, and the ones with the least power in any way feel like they are treated well, at the very minimum?
  • Do they feel like they are stakeholders in creating an environment of trust?
  • Do they have the space to talk about what they would like to change?

If the answer to these is yes, then the culture is healthy, stewarded by everyone, and has a fighting chance to help people thrive.

Header illustration by designstripe