Company culture - your secret weapon for driving employee productivity and success

Date: 27 Apr 2021

Author: Jemini Team

Say hello to company culture, the thing that can make or break your organisation - quite literally. Think of company culture as the strands of DNA that define its customs, norms and business practices. It defines the way the company and its people behave. If you ask a superstar leader about their culture, they’ll tell you “well, it’s just the way we do things around here.”

Imagine corporate or company culture in the same way that you would describe human cultures in different parts of the world. Culture can be fast, exciting slow, strict or relaxed. Some cultures around the world are described as being ‘totalitarian’ ‘collectivist’ or ‘individualist’ whereas some are liberal and free, allowing people to act and do as they please.

laughing colleagues

So what are the different ways of describing company cultures you ask…

Well, the easiest way to relate to company culture is by comparing two very well-known and very opposite types of organisations. The first is the bureaucratic, corporate organisation. They are famous for their BIG size and strict management style. They tend to have super rigid rules and many layers of management. These big corporate giants are also renowned for having endlessly long rule-books that detail specific guidelines for everything, from dress-codes right through to how projects should be run (and perhaps even the type of coffee that is served). Drip coffee anyone?

Let’s not be too critical here - some of the largest, most successful businesses in the world are bureaucratic. After all, when you’re launching a rocket into space, you need things to be planned down to the second. Their strict ‘command and control’ structure means decisions are taken slowly, prudently and carefully. Big decisions need to be signed off by many people, in polished boardrooms where one typically needs to wear a tie! This strict control is both friend and foe - in some ways it reduces risk and maintains consistency, but at the same time it means that large corporates can find it very hard to adapt and innovate quickly.

Let’s contrast this with the world of startups. In startups you’re just as likely to find the founder in a onesie or board-shorts. Their pet labradoodle is probably sleeping on their desk. Instead of rows and rows of tiny cubicles, you’re likely to find cushions, bean-bags, an area where cold-brew coffee is slowly brewing and yoga mats on the floor. There is an air of informality and ‘renegade’ in this environment. People do what they want (within reason); there’s barely any rules, apart from “get stuff done, and get it done as fast and productively as possible.”

Startups are famous for being innovative disruptors, breaking up the rule-book and moving fast. Corporate organisations are famous for moving slow, being risk averse and sometimes being ‘autocratic’ - meaning that decisions are not made by teams but by controlling higher powers and CEOs.

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So - Where does company culture come from in the first place?

Company culture doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It often forms organically over time, influenced by top management. CEOs and founders are typically the most influential in shaping culture. After all, they decide the company’s values, principles and purpose. It’s their initial behaviours and ethos that set the tone for the way of working. They are the ones who choose whether the working style will be high-octane and high-performance or relaxed and chill. They will decide whether they want strict rules and highly defined roles, or a more autonomous working environment where people have the freedom to get the job done in the manner and style that they choose. If they have an ‘autocratic’ management style, they’ll brief senior people on e x a c t l y what they should be doing down to the most specific and regimented level of detail. In contrast, in more progressive businesses with an autonomous culture, top management will set high expectations of performance but give teams the freedom to choose how to tactically reach those goals (even if it means that all work is performed by people maintaining a constant yoga pose).

BEWARE - whatever you do, your people will do too!

As humans, we have this funny habit of emulating the people around us. We do it as kids, and we do it as adults too. That’s why your most senior people need to practice what they preach. As a CEO or HR director, if you demand high performance from your people, but then visibly spend all your time on the Golf course or playing Xbox, then your people are likely to think it’s perfectly acceptable to do exactly the same.

If you are lazy your people will be lazy.

If you act with kindness and care, then your workforce will act with kindness and care.

If you have the maxim ‘the customer is king’ - and demonstrate this visibly over time, then this will become a living and breathing part of the culture of your organisation.

This is why it’s so important for the most visible, most senior people to live the values of the organisation. Your brand and your purpose can’t just be some fancy blurb that’s written on the wall in your reception area. And you can’t create a modern organisation just by adding a few bean-bags and a football table. Building a culture starts with the founding members setting the right example and tone from the very start. So be self-aware, always!

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Let’s play a game - how many different kinds of company culture can you name?

There’s infinite ways to describe the culture of a company, but here’s some of the most common ones.

Entrepreneurial, caring, bureaucratic, humorous, innovative, old fashioned, traditional, orthodox, unorthodox, open-minded, high-performance, zero tolerance, stuffy, staid, lean, customer first...

The truth is, we could go on and on, but from the above, you get what we mean. Every business is unique, and there’s no such thing as a ‘cookie cutter’ formula for your company’s culture. In reality, your culture is most likely a mix of all different qualities, just like the unbelievable set of genes that come together in your DNA to make you entirely unique.

Here’s a fact for you - when Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, all the desks in the office were made from old doors that had legs added. Why? Bezos wanted to create a frugal culture, that reminded people everyday about the need to invest in the important things. Sitting at these low-cost desks constantly reinforced a lean, low-cost mindset and a culture that avoided wasteful behaviours.

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Why is everybody totally obsessed with the culture of startups?

In recent years startups have become the new rock and roll. Their founders are the modern day celebrities. Think of Elon Musk and people like Mark Zuckerberg, or even Larry Page and Sergey Brin from Google. These people have created businesses that people would literally kill for to work at (figuratively speaking). It’s rare for graduates these days to leave college or university with a huge urge to work for a large bureaucratic corporation. They’re most likely to want to work for a fast-growing startup. But what’s so special about the culture of startups and why do they grow so fast? What’s so special about their culture that means they have some of the highest levels of employee productivity in the world? And why are so many large corporate giants increasingly trying to act like startups?

The answer is CULTURE.

Compared to their corporate cousins, startups act completely differently. Instead of layers and layers of management, they tend to have a flat structure, where knowledge and ideas are valued more than employee tenure, seniority and fancy job titles. In these startup environments the autonomous culture means that cross-functional teams can manage their work as they best see fit. This autonomy leads to higher levels of motivation and interest, leading to higher levels of output and productivity. The culture of respect rather than a culture of rules and fear allow people to work together in teams more effectively. The rules are less rigid; teams have the freedom and flexibility to take an experimental ‘test and learn’ approach. They are actively encouraged to experiment and make mistakes. Failures are celebrated, with each failure meaning the team is one step closer to success. In purpose led-cultures, people come together to work on projects where they have shared beliefs and a passion for creating something new, something groundbreaking or something that might actually change the world. In this type of working environment, people are moving beyond just trading their time for money. They’re harnessing their skills in an environment where their talent is valued, and they have the freedom to be their authentic selves.

Many startups are famous for bringing very diverse groups of people together. Without a rigid corporate rule-book, and without many of the historical legacy beliefs, progressive startups have encouraged people to ‘bring their whole selves to work’ - and to express themselves, irrelevant of their education, their race, their sexuality or whether they grew up in the right part of town.

These progressive, flat-structured, rule-breaking, experimental startups have created a non-judgemental, open and liberating environment where it’s OK to question the corporate orthodoxy. Instead of punishing people who try and break the rules, the mission is to disrupt and find ways to do things differently. This environment has been proven to create very high levels of productivity and leads to innovative thinking.

It’s the very reason why large corporate organisations have created their own ‘Skunkworks’ or ‘incubators’. It’s why so many large businesses are actively investing in startups, creating incubators to encourage collaboration with startups and working hard to integrate the cultural aspects of startups.

The magic cultural levers of employee productivity

The fantastic thing about company culture is that it’s a living breathing thing. Just like a coral reef in the ocean. It can grow, evolve and even if it’s not currently in the best of shape, it can be nurtured and brought back to life. The truth is, as a line manager, director or c-suite member, you can actively shape the cultures that drive employee productivity.

Think about the forces that shape the culture of your organisation - most notably, the rules (the written ones and the unwritten ones, known to everyone). Think long and hard about how these drive different behaviours.

For example, is good performance rewarded? Are people rewarded for doing the right thing or the wrong thing? People who cheat the system to win - are they the people who are celebrated?

Are people allowed to try a new way of doing something? Do they have the freedom to experiment? - or will they be punished and told off publicly for their initiative?

The highest and lowest paid people in your organisation…. Are they treated with the same courtesy and human decency? Are they invited to take part in the same company events? Does the CEO make the same investment of time and have an open door for everybody, no matter their role in the company?

In conclusion, shaping your culture is not rocket science. Typically, it boils down to setting an example and leading by example. When directors and senior managers live the values of the company, they set the tone for everybody and they actively shape the living and breathing culture of the business. 

The ultimate takeaway:

No matter the size of your organisation, and irrelevant of whether people have to wear suits (or can sit around in their knickers and underpants), you have an opportunity to shape your culture for the better, as something that drives performance, loyalty and respect. It’s the glue that holds everything together, so make the most of it.

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