I worry that I’m not a quick judge of how well I’ll mesh with someone. This week, my marketing class chose our project teams for the entire semester. After everyone gave a 45 second pitch of what they have to offer, we had 5 minutes of frenzy to form our alliances. I had some challenging interpersonal dynamics in my project team last semester, so I spent the days leading up to class imagining what a positive team culture could look like and how I could present myself in order to convey my values.
I’m very hopeful about my team, and I’m trying to set the tone for our interactions, suggesting some positive practices like starting meetings off with 30 second celebrations and inviting them over for a game night to get to know them a bit better. As is probably clear through my commitment to Positive Organizational Scholarship, I deeply value organizational and team culture. With a team of strangers forming all at once, it’s a challenge to guess what the dynamics might be like later on (but, on the flip side, you have more flexibility to craft the culture).
I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the cultures I want to be a part of lately. The recruiting process continues, and, after a lot of reflection, I’ve realized that my biggest priority, outside of lifestyle goals (yay puppy!), is to work for an organization known for its positive culture because I want that firsthand experience before trying to implement change. When you’re looking to join an established organization, as opposed to starting from scratch, it’s a bit easier to assess the culture already at play.
But how do we go about figuring out what the culture of an organization or a team is like? Karen Eber, in a recent webinar with Degreed and TED@Work, emphasizes that first we have to “understand that culture is not an initiative, it’s not something done by the CEO and that’s it — that it is a living aspect of your organization that has to be shaped each day.” In order to catch a glimpse of the lived experience in an organization, Eber warns against asking interviewers the direct question, “What is the culture like here?” This question is too general and prompts answers that just parrot the phrasing on the website.
Instead, Eber encourages asking specific questions to elicit stories that are representative of the broader lived experience. You might want to know how they typically begin their meetings or solicit feedback. Eber says that with these questions, “it’s not that there’s a right or wrong answer,” you’re “getting to specific moments that help uncover that leader’s style and what they value” to see if it aligns with your own.
In today’s job market, culture is important for organizations because it’s important to the people they’re looking to hire: “You can have the best business strategy in the world, but if you aren’t attracting the talent that can deliver that or creating a day-to-day environment that is going to enable them, you’re not going to meet it.” My own decision to base my first job on organizational culture makes this clear, but we want to be careful not to think that culture is static — that you can ever adequately and accurately assess the culture of an organization before joining it and trust it to stay that way in perpetuity. Just as culture is about lived experience, culture is a living, dynamic thing in and of itself.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen how radically and suddenly things can change at massive scales. These changes have had obvious and profound effects on how we conceive of organizations and their cultures, but change also happens on an individual scale, all the time. With all of these changes happening, there’s some malleability to our organizational cultures — and there should be. As Eber says, “If companies aren’t staying in tune with those things, then they’re suddenly trying to cram you into something that doesn’t fit. And when you’re in an environment where you feel that you don’t fit, you leave, and you opt out.”
But people don’t always leave. Chris White, our principal here at Riverbank, warns that when individuals don’t identify with the organizational culture, they can contribute to an attitude of change-resistance. White puts forth three actions such individuals might take: check out, act out, walk out. In the first two cases, an employee might choose to stay with an organization, but they are simply disengaged or actively working against the organization’s goals. And these aren’t trivial issues. Gallup reports that “Employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity,” going on to say that “In 2021, 21% of the world’s employees were engaged at work.”
Fostering a positive culture becomes an even clearer need with these statistics in mind. After recounting the evolution of workplaces from the assembly line to office workers to knowledge workers to the dot com era and beyond, Eber reminds us that the relationship between an organization and an employee should be mutually beneficial, especially in the job market today:
“It is no longer the case that you are lucky as an employee to have a job. It’s a two-way street. The company benefits from your knowledge and skills. You are an addition. You are helping them, and it is a blessing to them, and it is a blessing to you. There is this unspoken agreement that is renewed in meetings and conversations because all it takes is for one moment, where someone feels really frustrated and that they don’t fit in to say, ‘I’m done. Because I know how the other options available look to me.’“
We can and should continue to think purposefully about organizational culture, thinking about the ways we can help it to shift gracefully to support the employees in an organization as they change and grow. Culture is in the hands of everyone in an organization, as Eber maintains:
“We all shape culture. I can’t emphasize this enough. Whenever someone says, ‘Oh, can you come fix our culture?’ No, I can’t I can help you see how to evolve your culture. I can help you see how to shape your culture — because, by the way, you’re never done, no culture is ever finished — it is shaped every day by every person.”
Whether you’re forming a team with people you don’t know yet or looking to join a new organization or thinking about how your organization could grow with your people, we can be thoughtful and purposeful in the ways we contribute to and shape the culture we are a part of, with the goal of promoting engagement and enjoyment at work.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.