M-Theory: If you want a great culture, go organic

Written by: Melanie Baker | 10 June 2021 | M-Theory, Opinion

Do you think mill owners who had five-year-old children working for them during the Industrial Revolution worried about “culture fit”? Do you think workers at the turn of the 20th century thought much about team building while they were being beaten and arrested when striking for better wages and safer working conditions?

Why do we care so much these days about whether or not we have teams and culture? Did nothing get done when we were just people who worked at the same place? Did fisticuffs regularly break out in offices before we wore matching T-shirts to go axe-throwing? 

We know by now that trying to hire for culture or “fit” tends to be fraught with biases. “Fit” tends to mean “I feel comfortable with this person because they look, think, and/or talk like I do.” 

As for culture, well… what does it mean? If you ask a company representative, what they’ll tell you will likely sound more like values or mission. Or they’ll start listing things that people do, usually in groups. How are we qualified to try and build culture if we can’t even really define it?

It’s similarly opaque if you ask what companies do to develop culture. They’ll probably start telling you about activities. The matching T-shirts, the axe-throwing, the catered lunches on Friday. 

But how is that culture? Those lunches are just food that you pay for with your time and having to eat it en masse, maybe accompanied by a presentation. And participation in those events is pretty much mandatory. Or passive-aggressively mandatory. Seems like a good way to breed resentment among at least some folks.

There are still plenty of companies where you show your dedication and promotion-worthiness by being in the office (these days on Slack?) before anyone else, or going home after everyone else. Or perhaps, at least in the Before Times, were we supposed to prove our corporate value by wearing more logo swag than anyone else, or by joining the social committee, the betting pool for The Bachelor, and the fantasy football league?

Some people just want to do the job, man.

And let’s face it, no matter how hard companies work to hire for the right “fit,” not everyone is going to be best friends. People are different and messy and at any given company you’re going to have a range of interactions and relationships. From your bestie work spouse to that guy… uhh… you know, with the red stapler? 

To add even further complexity, sometimes people can communicate really well and do amazing work together, but have zero interest in extending that interaction socially. All good. (Some of the great duos in the history of entertainment have barely tolerated each other, after all...)

Perhaps it’s possible for everyone in a very small company to get along great, but it won’t last forever. Growth changes things. Time changes things. 

Note: -isms do not count here. Any disrespect, any hate. NO ONE has to just put up with that to try and get the job done.

But in general? It’s just life. Not everyone clicks, and wearing matching T-shirts won’t make it happen. 

Plus, there’s nothing wrong with just… getting the job done. Imagine, a company’s only expectation being that you do your job well and do what you can so other people can do their jobs well. (Mutually.)

Never again would anyone have to endure off-key renditions of Happy Birthday and grocery store sheet cake when they just want to get that report finished so they can go home.

Now, I may sound like the world’s biggest misanthrope, and certainly there are days when that may well be true. Mostly I’m curious how we got from child labour and robber barons to group yoga over Zoom. What do we think we’re doing better by focusing on team building and culture? What wasn’t working before – when work was just work – that needed fixing?

Because honestly? I’m pretty sure that relationship building and culture happen organically. We’re pack animals, after all. I’m quite sure you can’t mandate or force it. Feels a bit too much like your mom telling you to “go play nice” with some weird stranger kid when you were little. Except now your livelihood depends on it.

If people want to hang out at work, or after, they will. If people want to wear corporate swag, they will. If people do great work but never interact except while heads-down on a project, don’t sweat it. If people interview with you and don’t feel like they’d get along well with the people they’re introduced to during the process, they’ll probably just take their job search elsewhere.

I’m just not convinced that trying to make it happen, or pretending we know what to look for to build the best functioning team of people, rather than workers, really works that well. 

You know what makes people positively inclined toward their co-workers? Getting the job done consistently. You know what makes people love their co-workers? Demonstrations that they’ve got your back.

I think if the lion’s share of energies are directed at making the company work, that’s where your culture and your team cohesion will come from. Make it a place where there’s a variety of people with different experiences and skills and ideas, and make it safe for differences to come to light and be discussed respectfully. But please don’t put burdens of emotional labour on representative team members.

Make it a place where it’s expected that people will do their best, but that life gets in the way sometimes, and it’s OK if you get off your game and have to go and deal with that. And where it’s safe to make mistakes because the focus is on everyone pitching in to clean it up, and on what you learned from it.

Make it a place where people are expected to work together, communicate well, show respect, be curious, and lift each other up, but not where people are expected to try and fake being some kind of family rather than just co-workers. Especially if doing so takes time away from real families.

Make it a place where leaders lead and managers manage, and smart people have the agency to make decisions and express ideas and get credit for them. Where everyone knows what the core operations and goals are and sticks to them.

You manage all that, odds are you’ll have a thriving company and bona fide team and culture. Now, does that mean problems won’t crop up ever? No. Does it mean there will never be a hiring mistake that introduces someone toxic into the team dynamic? No. Does it mean there will never be turnover because no one will ever have a change of circumstances or want something different? No.

But you will have built a healthy, resilient structure that can recognize, act on and withstand such issues quickly and efficiently, with minimal disruption or damage. And that is how you build a team and a culture.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.