Companies love to brag about their corporate culture. That’s a fact. Usually, it’s a way for a company to highlight themselves as occasionally fun, nerdy, innovative or just silly. Maybe your company has Beer Fridays, or monthly Pajama Mondays. However you’ve chosen to embrace the silly side of your company’s culture—the truth is that constructing a meaningfully positive and effective corporate culture is much more difficult than deciding to express occasional whimsy. Constructing a positive and non-corrosive corporate culture can form the underpinnings of longterm growth and success.
The most effective organizations have extremely high trust environments. High trust environments are largely free of judgement culture. There’s freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to work outside of a rigidly defined role expectation. This removes the “not my job” mentality where individuals perform just up to the standard of role expectations and nothing more. A trust culture is a helping culture. Notice, I previously referenced judgement culture, which is not to indicate a lack of accountability. High trust environments accommodate high accountability standards. A judgement culture creates a constant need for a potential scapegoat should failure occur, a trust culture is built on mutual vulnerability and letting colleagues see our true selves rather than a carefully constructed work persona. This is workplace vulnerability—and it’s not weakness. It’s the key to innovation.
Judgement culture kills the spirit of innovation. Fact. But when vulnerability becomes the new normal and a trust culture blossoms, the fear of being judged harshly—or scapegoated—diminishes and individuals become more likely to innovate. Failures in innovation are viewed as Edison viewed his lightbulb failure—positive knowledge/data about what won’t work helps winnow down to what eventually will work. Getting to a state of vulnerability as a corporate norm doesn’t occur as the result of a top-down mandate though. Vulnerability is a scary proposition for people. It needs to be built at the team level through hard work, constant leadership encouragement and support, and by giving mid-level managers the mission of becoming vulnerability champions. Monthly one-on-ones between managers and individual contributors should not be perfunctory affairs just to check off the management to-do list. Conduct one-on-ones offsite, away from the daily grind, and use them to begin building solid and vulnerable trust-heavy relationships on teams.
When vulnerability blossoms org-wide into trust-heavy corporate culture, it transforms into empathy. Why does that matter? It’s simple. Empathy is the secret to a truly collaborative, problem-solving, solution-finding non-corrosive corporate culture. First, let’s define terms. Empathy is “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.” This means that a typically human perspective of only thinking about one’s duties, needs or desires is no longer the only criteria for fulfillment and satisfaction. The needs of others become important to you as well. So no longer do you have a “not my job” perspective as it relates to the needs of colleagues. Empathy results in a “how can I help you” mentality instead. And that approach—if carefully nurtured—can result in proactive, other-oriented problem-solving. You’ll start to hear this kind of question more frequently in team meetings: “what kind of support or help do you need from me to be successful on this project?” And you can certainly keep doing the Beer Fridays and the Pajama Mondays. Those kinds of things are cool and people generally enjoy them. But if you want to dig deeper and truly craft a world-class corporate culture, start encouraging vulnerability on a large scale and see where it takes you.
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