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Building Culture Post Water Cooler

A water cooler stands against an empty blue frame and an empty reddish orange background.
Should we mourn the loss of the water cooler when managers are now presented with new opportunities to build culture and foster collaboration? Lindauer CEO Deb Taft recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the benefits of a strong company culture and how organizations can go about achieving their own.

This interview originally appeared in Hunt Scanlon’s 2023 Culture Recruiting Report under the title “Understanding and Recruiting for the Perfect Culture Fit.”

What are the benefits of a strong culture?

The concept of “strong culture” is tricky. Organizations with strong cultures typically attract and retain those who affirm or further their culture. That strong culture can be inclusive or exclusive, built on years of leadership and founding community norms.

The advantage of strong cultures is that they attract those who are pulled to the norms they perceive. That reinforces the norms themselves, extends and expands the believers. That’s not a bad thing – and championing the normative culture is used very successfully in organizations around the world to attract, retain, rally community, build business, attract donors, and more.

But perceived cultures may not stand the test of time with demographic or regional shifts. Some of the greatest brands of the last century had to reinvent not just the perception of the cultures and missions, but the reality of their cultures and missions, or risk weakening business, support, and impact. This is where strong culture – often known as traditions – runs into forward progress. “Strong culture” can be a positive for a workforce, as long as leaders are paying close attention to market and employee realities, and moving forward in time.

In what ways did the pandemic affect culture?

I am hearing a lot of hand-wringing about the erosion of workplace culture in the pandemic, and I am not sure there’s enough self- and institutional-reflection going on. My immediate thought is, “whose culture was negatively affected?”

Many individuals were already not buying what our workplaces were selling pre-pandemic. Professionals were opting out, going into business on their own, becoming independent contractors, or staying but diminishing their own workplace engagement in the face of systemic structures that excluded them. Several studies on women and individuals of diverse lived experience were particularly telling, along with Gallup’s annual workplace data about younger workers.

Yes, the pandemic created a sea-change for workplaces that were fairly traditional, but the transformation was already underway and accelerating. We now see a difference in those managers who already knew how or have learned to manage more flexible workforces and those who want to revert to pre-pandemic approaches. Leading managers are arranging work modes and management styles to suit the work at hand: tasks best done in remote locations; bringing people together for ideation and creation; leaning into management, mentoring, and development instead of assuming old hallway conversations were sufficient; and understanding that productive bonding and work behaviors can be generated in new ways and were not necessarily well-fostered at the old water cooler.

Who should drive an organization’s culture?

There are those who believe that culture cannot be made, but simply exists and might be slightly modified. I’m not one of those leaders, as my life’s work has been in transforming and modernizing organizations and industries.

We at Lindauer bear witness to culture every day in our searches, whether static, shifting, or momentously transforming over years. Look at how fast a great organization’s culture can crumble under the wrong leader.

I know that positive shifts and even transformations can be created. Culture is set at the top, at the most senior level. But it’s actively driven across and through organizations, and that’s what many executive leaders fail to recognize. We encounter many mid-managers who convey in a search intake, for instance, “My boss believes in diversity, so of course we want a diverse pool. But just bring me the best talent you can find.” I am not going to unpack all the elements of that statement in this brief response, but what strikes me is that the mid-level manager has not been developed to understand the purpose, meaning, systemic realities, and operational underpinnings of diversity in ways that engender their own commitment to diversity.

I used to know that culture was shifting when I would hear the core messages of the desired culture coming back to me from team members across and through the organization in their own words. The new cultural norms were taking root, owned and championed not just by me, but by colleagues who were carrying the torch forward on their own.

What is DEI’s place in an organization’s culture?

Inclusion, diversity, and equity are absolutely vital in an organization’s culture. We know the thunderous data on impact and outcomes. Cultures that create belonging are better for every employee, not just those who are – or may look or seem – diverse. Creating cultures of belonging increases retention, employee engagement, work performance, and business outcomes.

The march of changing U.S. and global demographics continues. Will organizations ignore the demographics of their members, communities, and customers, and risk their own extinction?

There’s evidence that old ways of work and workforce management are returning in 2023. We at Lindauer saw strong leadership commitment to inclusion and diversity in 2020 and 2021 begin to erode in 2022. Professionals of diverse lived experience who joined organizations in the past few years are heading for the door, unwilling to accept performative behaviors, stalled progress, and undelivered DEI promises.

Leading organizations, however, are continuing to follow the data and do the work.

Download Hunt Scanlon Media’s 2023 Corporate Culture Report.

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