How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures – by Erin Meyer

It was Willem’s turn, one of the Dutch participants, who recounted an uncomfortable snafu when working with Asian clients.  “How can I fix this relationship?” Willem asked his group of international peers.

Maarten, the other Dutch participant who knew Willem well, jumped in with his perspective. “You are inflexible and can be socially ill-at-ease. That makes it difficult for you to communicate with your team,” he asserted. As Willem listened, I could see his ears turning red (with embarrassment or anger? I wasn’t sure) but that didn’t seem to bother Maarten, who calmly continued to assess Willem’s weaknesses in front of the entire group. Meanwhile, the other participants — all Americans, British and Asians — awkwardly stared at their feet.

That evening, we had a group dinner at a cozy restaurant.  Entering a little after the others, I was startled to see Willem and Maarten sitting together, eating peanuts, drinking champagne, and laughing like old friends. They waved me over, and it seemed appropriate to comment, “I’m glad to see you together. I was afraid you might not be speaking to each other after the feedback session this afternoon.”

Willem, with a look of surprise, reflected, “Of course, I didn’t enjoy hearing those things about myself. It doesn’t feel good to hear what I have done poorly. But I so much appreciated that Maarten would be transparent enough to give me that feedback honestly. Feedback like that is a gift. Thanks for that, Maarten” he added with an appreciative smile.

I thought to myself, “This Dutch culture is . . . well . . . different from my own.”

Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

One way to begin gauging how a culture handles negative feedback is by listening to the types of words people use. More direct cultures tend to use what linguists callupgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This istotally unprofessional.”

By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British are masters at it.  The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”, which has been circulating in various versions on the Internet, illustrates the miscommunication that can result.

Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide Table

Germans are rather like the Dutch in respect of directness and interpret British understatement very similarly. Marcus Klopfer, a German client, described to me how a misunderstanding with his British boss almost cost him his job:

In Germany, we typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly. Of course, we assume others will do the same. My British boss during a one-on-one “suggested that I think about” doing something differently. So I took his suggestion: I thought about it, and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as “change your behavior right away or else.” And I can tell you I was pretty surprised when my boss called me into his office to chew me out for insubordination!

I learned to ignore all of the soft words surrounding the message when listening to my British teammates. Of course, the other lesson was to consider how my British staff might interpret my messages, which I had been delivering as “purely” as possible with no softeners whatsoever. I realize now that when I give feedback in my German way, I may actually use words that make the message sound as strong as possible without thinking much about it. I’ve been surrounded by this “pure” negative feedback since I was a child.

All this can be interesting, surprising, and sometimes downright painful, when you are leading a global team: as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words will be magnified or minimized significantly based on your listener’s cultural context   So you have to work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures.   As Klopfer reported:

Now that I better understand these cultural tendencies, I … soften the message when working with cultures less direct than my own.  I start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then I ease into the feedback with “a few small suggestions.” As I’m giving the feed- back, I add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Then I wrap up by stating that “This is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth,” and “You can take it or leave it.”  The elaborate dance is quite humorous from a German’s point of view … but it certainly gets [the] desired results!

What about you? Where do you think your own culture falls in this regard?   If I need to tell you your work is total crap, how would you like me to deliver the message?


Erin Meyer is a professor specializing in cross-cultural management at INSEAD, where she is the program director for two executive education programs: Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business.  She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, June 2014).  Follow her on Twitter: @ErinMeyerINSEAD

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others – By Anita Wolley,Thomas W. Malone and Christopher F. Chabris

Psychologists have known for a century that individuals vary in their cognitive ability. But are some groups, like some people, reliably smarter than others?

Working with several colleagues and students, we set out to answer that question. In our first two studies, which we published with Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi of M.I.T. in 2010 in the journal Science, we grouped 697 volunteer participants into teams of two to five members. Each team worked together to complete a series of short tasks, which were selected to represent the varied kinds of problems that groups are called upon to solve in the real world. One task involved logical analysis, another brainstorming; others emphasized coordination, planning and moral reasoning.

Individual intelligence, as psychologists measure it, is defined by its generality: People with good vocabularies, for instance, also tend to have good math skills, even though we often think of those abilities as distinct. The results of our studies showed that this same kind of general intelligence also exists for teams. On average, the groups that did well on one task did well on the others, too. In other words, some teams were simply smarter than others.

We next tried to define what characteristics distinguished the smarter teams from the rest, and we were a bit surprised by the answers we got. We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.

Instead, the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

In a new study that we published with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we replicated these earlier findings, but with a twist. We randomly assigned each of 68 teams to complete our collective intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.

And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.

This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as “Theory of Mind,” to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe.

A new science of effective teamwork is vital not only because teams do so many important things in society, but also because so many teams operate over long periods of time, confronting an ever-widening array of tasks and problems that may be much different from the ones they were initially convened to solve. General intelligence, whether in individuals or teams, is especially crucial for explaining who will do best in novel situations or ones that require learning and adaptation to changing circumstances. We hope that understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively.

Lecture Me. Really. – by Molly Worthen

BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. Like most classrooms at my university, this one featured lots of helpful gadgets: a computer console linked to an audiovisual system, a projector screen that deploys at the touch of a button and USB ports galore. But one thing was missing. The piece of technology that I really needed is centuries old: a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes. I managed to obtain one, but it took a week of emails and phone calls.

Perhaps my request was unusual. Isn’t the old-fashioned lecture on the way out? A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.” Maryellen Weimer, a higher-education blogger, wrote: “If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game.”

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Today’s vogue for active learning is nothing new. In 1852, John Henry Newman wrote in “The Idea of a University” that true learning “consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas.” The lecture course, too, has always had skeptics. In his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot warned that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome, but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.”

Eliot was a chemist, so perhaps we should take his criticisms with a grain of salt. In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

When Kjirsten Severson first began teaching philosophy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon, she realized that she needed to teach her students how to listen. “Where I needed to start was by teaching them how to create space in their inner world, so they could take on this argument on a clean canvas,” she told me. She assigns an excerpt from Rebecca Shafir’s “The Zen of Listening” to help students learn to clear their minds and focus. This ability to concentrate is not just a study skill. As Dr. Cummins put it, “Can they listen to a political candidate with an analytical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.”

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms. They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty. A good lecturer is “someone who conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about,” Dr. Delbanco said. Or as Ms. Severson told me, “I’m a pretty shy person, but when I lecture, there’s a certain charisma. This stuff matters to me — it saved my life.”

Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor (“the way she lectured always made you make connections to your own life,” wrote one of Ms. Severson’s students in an online review). But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking. Note-taking is important partly for the record it creates, but let’s be honest. Students forget most of the facts we teach them not long after the final exam, if not sooner. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind.

“Note-taking should be just as eloquent as speaking,” said Medora Ahern, a recent graduate of New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. I tracked her down after a visit there persuaded me that this tiny Christian college has preserved some of the best features of a traditional liberal arts education. She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

This is not a “passive” learning experience, and it cannot be replicated by asking students to watch videotaped lectures online: the temptations of the Internet, the safeguard of the rewind button and the comforts of the dorm-room sofa are deadly to the attention span. But note-taking is not a skill professors can take for granted. We must teach it. Dr. Cummins assigns one student in each day’s class the task of not only taking notes, but also presenting a critique of her argument at the next class meeting.

This kind of work prepares students to succeed in the class format that so many educators, parents and students fetishize: the small seminar discussion. A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions. “We don’t want to pretend that all we have to do is prod the student and the truth will come out,” Dr. Delbanco told me.

Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time. One hundred and sixty years ago, when education reformers proposed training students only in the sciences or “temporal callings,” John Henry Newman defended the humanities as a repository of moral and cultural knowledge, but also as crucial disciplines for teaching a student how to think, “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent,” Newman wrote. “He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”

Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer.

How to separate learning myths from reality – by Artin Atabaki, Stacey Dietsch, and Julia M. Sperling

Over the years, you have probably gained some insight into how your brain works. You may have taken a course or read a book that promised to reveal the secret of maximizing your mental capacity—a common sales pitch of leadership coaches these days. In the process, you may have read that after a critical period in childhood there is no hope for significant learning, that half of your brain is inactive at any given time, or that you’re capable of learning properly only in your preferred style.

Each of these claims is what we call a “neuromyth,” a misconception based on incorrect interpretations of neuroscientific research. Our experience advising companies on their lifelong-learning initiatives suggests that such misunderstandings remain embedded in many corporate training programs. As companies increasingly pour money into developing their employees, they can no longer afford to invest in training programs based on inaccurate and out-of-date assumptions. In recent years, for example, US businesses alone spent more than $164 billion annually on employee learning.1 The stakes are high and getting higher.

Bridging the gap between popular neuromyths and the scientific insights gathered in the past few decades is a growing challenge. As modern brain-imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have advanced scientific knowledge, these misleading lay interpretations by business practitioners have advanced as well. Unless such misconceptions are eliminated, they will continue to undermine both personal- and organizational-learning efforts. In this article, we’ll address the three most prominent neuromyths in light of the latest research and explore some of the implications for corporate learning.

Myth #1: The critical window of childhood

Most of us have heard about critical learning periods—the first years of life, when the vast majority of the brain’s development is thought to occur. After this period, or so the assumption too often goes, the trajectory of human development is deemed to be more or less fixed. That, however, is an exaggeration. Recent neuroscientific research indicates that experience can change both the brain’s physical structure and its functional organization—a phenomenon described as neuroplasticity.

Researchers studying the plasticity of the brain are increasingly interested in mindfulness. Practicing simple meditation techniques, such as concentrated breathing, helps build denser gray matter in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, controlling emotions, and compassion. A team led by Harvard scientists has shown that just eight weeks of mindful meditation can produce structural brain changes significant enough to be picked up by MRI scanners.2

Organizations from General Mills in consumer foods to digital bellwethers such as Facebook and Google increasingly give their employees opportunities to benefit from mindfulness and meditation. Most such programs have garnered enthusiastic support from employees, who often see a marked improvement in their mind-sets and job performance. For example, employees at the health insurer Aetna who have participated in the company’s free yoga and meditation classes report, on average, a 28 percent decrease in their levels of stress and a productivity increase of 62 minutes a week—an added value of approximately $3,000 per employee a year. CEO Mark Bertolini, who started the program a few years ago, marvels at the level of interest generated across the company; to date, more than a quarter of Aetna’s 50,000 employees have taken at least one class.3 Leaders like Bertolini understand that providing them with the tools to become more focused and mindful can foster a better working environment conducive to development and high performance.

Myth #2: The idle-brain theory

A recent European survey discovered that nearly 50 percent of teachers surveyed in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands believed that the idle-brain theory has been proved scientifically.4 This misunderstanding originally stemmed from inaccurate interpretations of activation hot spots in brain-imaging studies. By now, more carefully interpreted functional brain scans have shown that, irrespective of what a person is doing, the entire brain is generally active and that, depending on the task, some areas are more active than others. People can always learn new ideas and new skills, not by tapping into some unused part of the brain, but by forming new or stronger connections between nerve cells.

This insight into the brain’s capacity becomes particularly relevant for the environment and context in which learning typically occurs. Everybody knows, all too well, about the habit of quickly checking e-mails or planning for the next meeting in the middle of a training session. The problem is that such multitasking engages large parts of the brain’s working memory. Without freeing that up, we cannot successfully memorize and learn new information. In short, multitasking and learning cannot occur effectively at the same time.

Some organizations, recognizing this problem, are working to build immersive learning environments where distractions are eliminated. At McKinsey, we’ve created a model factory that participants can walk through to see operating conditions in action. But first, everyone is asked to place their phones and other distractive belongings in a locker, so they can fully concentrate on the learning exercise at hand. At many companies, removing the temptation of using mobile devices during learning sessions is becoming commonplace.

Myth #3: Learning styles and the left/right brain hypothesis

Almost everyone has encountered the theory that most people are either dominantly analytical (and left brained) or more creative (and right brained). However, this either/or dichotomy is false. The two hemispheres of the brain are linked and communicate extensively together; they do not work in isolation. The simplistic notion of a false binary has led, in many businesses, to the misconception that each one of us has a strictly preferred learning style and channel. Recent studies have flatly disproved this idea, suggesting instead that engaging all the senses in a variety of ways (for instance, audiovisual and tactile) can help employees retain new content.

One organization that puts this idea into practice is KFC, which uses multiple forms of learning in customer-service training. Sessions begin with an after-hours board game placing the entire team of a store in the role of the customer. This is followed up by “gamified” learning that fits into roughly 15-minute windows during shifts. These video game–like modules put the employees behind the cash register to handle a number of typical customer experiences, including responding to audio and visual cues of satisfaction. At the end of the online modules, employees physically reconvene at the front of the store to hear feedback, report on what they’ve learned, and receive live coaching as reinforcement.

Although significant progress has been made, much remains to be done to eradicate neuromyths from the philosophy of corporate-training programs. Neuroscience research has confirmed some of the approaches that learning professionals already use, such as on-the-job reinforcement and engagement without distractions. But that research has also contradicted other approaches. Companies should draw on the newly substantiated insights and may need to rethink their training programs accordingly. At the very least, they need to improve their dialogue with, and understanding of, the scientific community.

About the authors

Artin Atabaki is a consultant in McKinsey’s Stuttgart office; Stacey Dietsch is an associate principal in the Washington, DC, office; and Julia M. Sperling is a principal in the Dubai office.

The authors wish to thank McKinsey’s Jennifer May, Michael Rennie, and Kristina Wollschlaeger for their support of and contributions to this article.

Culture: Why It’s The Hottest Topic In Business Today – by Josh Bersin

Last year Merriam Webster’s dictionary stated that ”culture” was the most popular word of the year. Well, it has now become one of the most important words in corporate board rooms, and for good reason.

We have a retention crisis. New Deloitte research shows that culture, engagement, and employee retention are now the top talent challenges facing business leaders. More than half business leaders rate this issue “urgent” – up from only around 20% last year.

What’s going on? It’s very simple: as the economy picks up steam (unemployment now below 5.5%), employees have more bargaining power than ever before. Thanks to social websites likeLinkedIn LNKD +0.07%, Glassdoor, and Indeed, a company’s employment brand is now public information so if you’re not a great place to work, people find out fast. This shifts power into the hands of job-seekers.

And many companies have work to do.  Gallup’s latest research shows that only 31% of employees are engaged at work (51% are disengaged and 17.5% activelydisengaged). Analysis of the Glassdoor database shows that the average employee gives their company a C+ (3.1 out of 5) when asked whether they would recommend their company to a friend (Bersin by Deloitte research with Glassdoor).

We have arrived in a world of “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to attracting and engaging top talent.

Let me cite some examples:

  • I recently met with one of the world’s biggest industrial manufacturers on the east coast and they lamented losing top aerospace engineers to Google GOOGL +0.73%. They’re scratching their heads to figure out how to prevent more top engineers from leaving.
  • A large well-known Silicon Valley company considering a major facelift of its corporate campus to attract young people. They’re not sure if it will work or not, but they feel they have no choice. Here there is a war to build the “best workplace in the world” – free food, unlimited vacation, yoga classes, beer bashes, and bright open offices are everywhere. (Check out Google’s new space age campus design.)
  • Most financial services companies I meet with tell me they are struggling to hire top people. While the industry is still popular with MBAs, the recession damaged the reputation for this industry and it’s just starting to recover.

Companies that focus on culture are becoming icons for job seekers:

  • Fortune’ Best Companies happen to be many of the same companies listed in Glassdoor’sBest Places to Work and also LinkedIn’s Most In-Demand Employers. This shows that companies with strong positive cultures (Fortune and Glassdoor’s list is based on employee surveys) are now the most in-demand.  So the “culture winners” are winning bigger.
  • Younger companies that focus on culture see a huge payoff. HubSpot, a growing New England tech firm focused on its culture (around 1,000 employees), has Glassdoor ratings of 4.6, far above the industry average. They give their staff free books and education and believe so strongly in transparency that they post their board meeting notes and culture manifesto online.
  • NetFlix’s culture manifesto ”freedom with responsibility” is one of the most popular documents on the internet, 11 million+ viewers. Everyone wants to copy it.
  • Value statements have popped up everywhere. Zappos’ cultural values focus on innovation, Quicken Loans  uses its colorful “ISMS” to guide values (“call back every client the same day” is one of their values), Google has its 10 ”truths” (focus on the user is one), RW Baird has its “ unique culture,” Salesforce focuses on community, and it goes on and on.
  • Culture-driven companies explicitly put their people first. Wegmans, the #7 best place to work in the Fortune list, reset business goals just to create the jobs and career growth they want for their people. “Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers,” as the saying goes.
  • Traditional companies like Aetna are now heavily focused on culture. Recently the New York Times published an article about Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini. He has raised wages, improved health benefits, and introduced yoga and mindfulness training to his entire company to improve retention and culture in the call centers. Their $100M + turnover problem is rapidly going away and he claims to have already improved the bottom line by 3-4 %.

google

Look at how office space is now part of building a great culture. Fortune’s new “25 coolest offices of the 100 Best Companies” shows how most of these great places to work are actually great PLACES to work. Flexibility, entertainment, and bright colorful offices and art make these companies a fun place to work.

People now believe that culture has a direct impact on financial performance. I just talked with two industry analysts who read Glassdoor comments before they publish analyst reports.  Both told me they use this data to understand employee sentiment read comments about the CEO as part of their core research. It also helps them compare competitors.

As the saying goes, “Culture eats Strategy for Lunch.”  (And free lunch is now part of the culture.)

Ok it’s a popular topic. What is culture anyway?

Culture is a big and somewhat vague term. Some define it as “what happens when nobody is looking.”

In reality, it’s much more complex. Culture is the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems, and rituals that make up your organization. You can “feel” culture when you visit a company, because it is often evident in people’s behavior, enthusiasm, and the space itself.

I visit a lot of companies and I can often sense the culture in a few minutes. Are people busy and working with customers? Or are they quietly working alone? Do they get in early and leave late? Or does the parking lot empty at 4:30? Is the office beautiful and inspiring with values and icons around, or is it messy and busy? Is there a sense of order or a sense of family?  All these clues help diagnose culture.

The Competing Values Framework, by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, is a terrific textbook on organizational culture. After years of research the authors grouped organizational cultures into four types and their research shows that most teams fall into one of these four types. You can diagnose your culture using tools like theirs (and others) and it will help you align your values and hiring to the culture you want to build.  There are three issues to consider:  type (what is your culture), strength (how strong is it), and congruence (how consistent is it).

competing-values-framework

Our research shows that culture and employee engagement are tightly linked (“culture” vs. “climate”), but not the same thing. Culture is slow to build, pervasive, and hard to change. Climate can be changed quickly.

When you communicate and honor culture, people know what to expect and feel comfortable. And the climate must support it. For example, a CEO I interviewed told me that “calling people back the same day” was part of his culture – so he monitors this behavior because to him, customer service is cultural bedrock.

As a company grows or acquires another company, the culture will often shift. IBM has been through many culture changes over the years, and one can trace them to major transitions in the business. When I worked there in the 1980s, IBM was a technology pioneer, but then later slowly but deliberately changed its culture to that of a consulting organization. Now it seems to be headed back.

Sometimes an acquisition will damage a well-honed culture, so watch out here. (When HP acquired Compaq, for example, a culture of engineering quality was mixed with a culture of low-cost production, causing a historic challenge.)

Many HR and management practices will drive or support culture. Do you value employee development? Are people empowered to take charge or do they follow the rules? How are people promoted and why? The Simply Irresistiblemodel describes many of the factors. If you’re focused on culture, we encourage managers and HR teams to think about the “total employee experience”: everything from the coffee in the coffee machine to the quality of management plays a role.

simply irresistble

How Do We Build And Manage Great Culture?

Ultimately culture is driven by leadership. How leaders behave, what they say, and what they value drives culture.

I proved this myself: I analyzed the Glassdoor database and found that the factor most highly correlated with an individual’s recommendation of their company as a place to work was “quality and trust in leadership.”

So the selection of leaders, development of leaders, and the coaching of leaders are all critical to building the right culture. Companies that focus on building great leaders spend almost 3X the average on leadership development, and they get a tremendous return for it.

Once culture is established and communicated, it becomes a tool to screen and assist candidates. The Talent Board (a research group that studies the job candidate experience) found that 41% of all candidates search for information about a company culture before they apply. So your culture is already a screening tool when you recruit people.

Zappos relies on culture to screen all hires, by trying to see if they are “wacky.” (Zappos assesses culture before they even assess job fit.) Southwest Airlines assesses culture fit by asking candidates to tell a joke. When you focus on culture as strategy you find that some people just won’t fit, regardless of their pedigree.

When I asked the SVP of HR at a financial institution how they guard their culture she said “people who don’t work as a team just don’t like it here.  They leave.”  Culture is like a flywheel: it gets stronger the more you reinforce it.

culture

If you want to improve your culture, look carefully at how you coach and evaluate your people. Do you believe in “forced ranking?” or “up or out?” That process in itself creates a type of culture – one most companies are moving away from. Today more than 60% of the companies we surveyed are changing how they evaluate performance because they want to drive empowerment and innovation into their organization. We call performance management the “secret ingredient” to building a highly engaged culture.

The ISMS Culture Book of Quicken Loans

A New Industry Of Culture And Engagement Tools

An industry of new culture diagnostic and feedback tools is emerging. Historically culture assessment has been a niche market of small psychology firms (companies like Human Synergistics, Dennison Consulting, and Senn Delaney have been around for years). Now, driven by the need to engage and attract people, this market is going mainstream. New, mobile and real-time tools to assess culture, collect regular and real-time feedback, and analyze employee sentiment are disrupting the $billion market for employee engagement and culture surveys.

Some of the new vendors include CultureAmp, TinyHRBlackbookHR,Achievers, GloboforceBetterCompany.co, Glint.io, OfficeVibe, Waggl, Canary,RelatedMatters, and dozens of others now offer real-time engagement and employee feedback tools to help you better understand and improve your workplace environment. Deloitte has a new culture assessment tool which is gaining great momentum. (Read Why Companies Fail to Engage Today’s Workforce for more information on this new market.)

Keeping It Simple:  Part Of Building A Great Culture

Remember also that great cultures are easy to understand. So keep it simple.  If you can’t write your values and culture down in a few words, it’s probably too complex to understand.

simplification

We believe simplification is becoming the next big thing in business. More than 60% of the companies we surveyed told us that their employees feel “overwhelmed” by the volume of activity and messages they get at work.  So part of your cultural facelift should also be “decluttering” of the workplace.

GE recently launched a major new strategy to simplify its business: the company is teaching managers how to focus, showing people how to spend more time with customers, and simplifying its back office processes. SAP did the same thing, and saw employee engagement rise by almost 30%.

Simplification can also improve the culture of compliance. New research by Deloitte Australia shows that financial services firms that focus on culture instead of compliance systems have better compliance. The research believes $240 billion is wasted on overly-complex compliance systems which could be replaced by a “culture of compliance.”

Great corporate cultures have always thrived on simplicity. Remember the mantra at IBM in the 1970s and 1980s?  It was very simple: “Think.” The Nordstrom’s rule?  ”Use good judgement.” These are simple statements that help people focus. When the rules and values are simple, we remember them.

One of the 10 ”Isms” in Quicken Loans’ manifesto is “ keep it simple.” Don’t make things complicated and don’t design for the “edge cases.”

Design thinking, agile and distributed management is all a part of simplifying work and improving corporate culture. This is an area where HR has work to do (read The Decluttering of Human Resources for more).

Ok I get it. Culture Matters. What should I do?

The prescription is pretty simple. Do you take culture seriously? Do you understand and monitor your culture? Does leadership use culture as a way to communicate values and strategy?  Are you investing adequately in your people programs?

There are many role models to follow:  Southwest Airlines’ culture of customer service and fun (elegantly described in The Southwest Way); Apple Inc.’s culture of innovation and technology elegance; Google’s culture of focusing on the user; even the US Post Office’s culture of service and reliability. Most of the companies in the Fortune Best Places to Work have a strong focus on culture – usually embodied by the CEO.

Your culture, like your strategy, is unique to your organization. It builds over time and is often hard to change. And when things don’t seem to be going well, turn back the clock. Sometimes the culture is what changed: remember what made your company great in the first place.

Finally, remember that culture lets you focus on your purpose and mission. As Joey Reiman describes in his book The Story of Purpose, people are not intrinsically motivated by profit or market share – it is purpose and values that bring us to work every day.

No matter if you’re a CEO, HR executive, manager, or team leader –  culture really matters. Consider it one of your most powerful tools for business success.

Josh Bersin


Josh Bersin is a leading analyst in HR, talent, leadership, and HR technology. He is also founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, a leading research and advisory firm.