Elements of a Good Working Culture

Career

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jotham.lim

Small enterprises tend to treat company culture as if it is an arm within the human resource department. Operationally, they function similarly to marketing—creating materials with eye-rolling copy targeting internal employees and deems it “building” company culture.

  • “We work hard, and we play harder.”
  • “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  • and my favourite yet–“At Company XYZ, we are a family.” Yeah…sure thing, dad.

Like a self-help book touting the law of attraction, company leadership seems to believe that the “culture” they envisioned will somehow manifest itself if they broadcast it long and hard enough. Vision; mission; commitments… A gush of propaganda speeches being forced into ear canals during corporate retreats and town hall meetings, only to be met with blank stares or disinterested yawns.

Personally, company culture is less about bold fonts or grand gestures, and more about the mundane practices of daily life. Japanese firms perform “Tejime”, where they clap and shout slogans in unison at the start of every working day. The short 5-minute ritual that reinforces the idea of a team, recognises the members within it, and syncs up employees to the right subconscious mindset–“it is time to work”.

Cultish as it may seem, I think it is a pretty good way to improve productivity and cultivate team spirit. At least, it is enough to compel the world’s largest glove maker to adopt it at their headquarters. Several public-listed even incorporate similar daily “War Room” sessions, with less clapping, more reporting, and a different kind of shouting. In tech startups, we adopt a more practical mimicry of such routines, such as daily stand-ups for Scrum workflows.

Is Tejime, War Rooms and Scrums “company culture”? Not really, but it is certainly a part of it.

Hopefully this newsletter provides a bit of insight that you may have never considered before.

Pride

I start with pride, believing that it serves as the foundations for the remaining elements to come. It is a hazy, all-encompassing term that reflects the purpose of the employee’s work, the employee’s sense of ownership towards the work, and the associated rewards and credit that goes along with it.

Pride is what drives artisans to perfect their art pieces late into the night; The fuel that drives salespeople to close deals with money and reputation at stake; The endorphin rush after getting a code block to run properly after hours of troubleshooting. Pride is also seeing your work having a tangible, meaningful impact to the people you care about, or to society at large.

Without pride, employees are not incentivised to care about their own work, let alone the well-being of the entire company. Yet, it is also an unlimited resource that companies are unwilling to share. The success of a single employee is not distributed, but commandeered by the company. All credit flows to the top. All intellectual property rights are owned by the firm.

Here’s a food for thought: Is a journalist with a byline more invested in his/her work compared to a content writer contributing under a company alias?

Instead of viewing pride as a cardinal sin, companies should be willing to share the fruits of their success with the people who helped cultivate them. It doesn’t have to be expensive nor difficult either, requiring only minute shifts in attitude and mindset.

  • Be liberal with praise and encouragement.
  • Treat employees out for lunches.
  • Have employee names included in patent and intellectual property documents.
  • Bring them along for award ceremonies.
  • Heck, even name meeting rooms or company property after them for the fun of it.

It is these tiny nuggets of respect and acknowledgements that make employees feel valued. All of us do not want to spend half of our waking moments being part of a company we are not proud of. Give them a legacy to leave behind, and a fondness to look back towards for when they eventually leave the company, retirement or otherwise.

People

Strip away the layers of what makes a company, and you will find that businesses are fundamentally made up of people. After all, a person armed with paperwork is enough to establish a sole proprietorship. Hence, a company’s culture requires the direct involvement from everyone on the corporate hierarchy, from the intern all the way to the top honcho.

Top Management

In the strict confines of corporate culture, I believe that top management only has two roles to play:

  • Keeping morale high
  • Shouldering the burden of decision-making

The former is easier than the latter, purely because there is a sure fire cheat code involved: Spend money on employees. 💰

Corporate retreats and town hall meetings shouldn’t be propaganda platforms, but can be powerful motivators when the activities are actually fun and the food actually tastes good. For the sales department, it means greater commissions for good performance. For the rest, it means dishing out bonuses during a well performing year.

Money doesn’t buy loyalty, but the lack of money is the fastest way of losing it. Not providing adequate monetary support only serves to tilt the scales against your favour every time an employee considers job-hopping. If your company struggles with talent churn, make staying at the company a rewarding and less-risky experience, and they are more likely to stay.

Still, there are non-monetary ways of boosting morale. Internal workshops, sharing sessions and mentorship programs are great methods when well executed. Cult personalities are also great at inspiring team members, right until they backfire after a while. (Think Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.) But in short, the theme here is to say less and do more.

I specifically phrase decision-making as a burden, because it is exactly what it sounds like—a burden. Making decisions, both large and small, takes considerable mental resources and requires the decision maker to shoulder the accountability and responsibility associated with it.

It is both a science and and art that takes a lifetime to master, even for seasoned politicians. Right or wrong, each of these isolated decisions will ripple their way downwards throughout the entire organisation, and the management needs to bear the outcome instead of faulting someone, or something else. (A common theme in corporate culture).

And yet, many management teams approach decision-making in a less than ideal manner. There is a time and place for decisions to be democratised—such as whether Tuesdays should be return-to-office day. Some decisions need to be consulted internally or externally with the help of consulting firms.

However, there are certain decisions that only management can make, all of which have both direct and indirect impact on company culture:

  • Placing the right people at key positions
  • Determining company direction
  • Dictating ownership and organisation structures
  • Committing to partnerships, mergers and acquisitions
  • Establishing working policies and guidelines

A lot of culture-related issues does not just stem from making the wrong decisions, but rather the timing of it. How should companies approach troublemakers spreading toxicity internally? How should companies deal with ineffective remote working policies?

Too early, and it can be disruptive. Drag your feet, and the damage has already been done. Both require more deliberation and political resources to resolve. Regardless, decisions need to be made, and it takes a strong leader to man up and take the plunge.

The poorest decision I see companies frequently make is coming up with a poor vision statement—the reason why your companies exist in the first place. Being the “best” or “top” within your respective industries is vague, vain, and tough for employees to rally behind.

The company vision doesn’t have to be attainable. It can even be hypocritical, but it still needs to be well stated. Think Tesla and their weak pursuit towards sustainability.

But a company without a clear vision statement only signals to the employee the uncomfortable truth nobody wants to openly admit—that the company’s sole purpose is to vacuum as much money as possible from the market and enrich shareholders. Good luck building a corporate culture around that.

Middle Management

Mid-level managers and healthy work cultures rarely go hand-in-hand, but that is because excellent managers are really hard to come by. Their role in building company culture is exactly the same as top management, but can be way harder to execute.

  • They need to keep morale high using less resources while interacting with grassroots on a daily basis.
  • They need to make important decisions with one hand tied behind their backs, to toe the line while still taking employee well being into consideration.

Managing both upwards and downwards takes immense skill, patience, and resolve. A competent manager who are also keystone members within internal communities are gems of the industry. Their worth mostly stems from their leadership, project-management skills and charisma. Although their hard skills are more of a cherry on top, having capable technical IT skills is a huge plus.

Such talents sound like unicorns, because they certainly are. Perhaps, they have already migrated to Singapore, Australia, or Hong Kong. Still, I am confident that you have come across one or two throughout your career, seeing that I have wonderful mentors who are like that. But what if there are difficulties procuring these mythical creatures in the first place? What are the traits of a manager that a company should look out for?

Competency. A workplace can be extremely toxic, but a competent manager knows how to separate politics from work deliverables. Managers can even have egos larger than their own heads, provided that they have the chops to back it up. An ego without competence just breeds complaints within WhatsApp groups and drama for bedroom conversations.

Thankfully, a middle management who knows how to plan, instruct, execute and report, although still rare, are skills that can be trained and mentored. They don’t have to be great leaders, they just need to know how to get the job done.

And yes, I do heavily advocate company leadership mentoring mid-managers, especially for smaller companies with the political flexibility to do so. Because the alternative would be to hire externally, which is riskier, more expensive, and may reshape company culture in an unpredictable way. Plus, isn’t teaching and coaching the eldest son what fathers do in a “family”?

Team Composition

The rules are different for teams. Many corporate firms seem to be in an arm’s race to hire the most technically competent executives within the industry, and I don’t understand why. Many of the “best-in-class” people I know are weird or assholes, just like how there are weird people and assholes in all kinds of social groups.

Instead, I believe that team composition plays a bigger role in cultivating a better company culture. Every well-performing team I know has at least one social butterfly who knows how to get everyone together and create fun. (Sadly, I’m not one of them)

These are the types who make friends with everyone and bring out the best in people. They don’t have to be the best performer in the team, but their social contribution provides more value than their technical skills ever could.

I think team synergy depends heavily on how well team leaders, or managers, interact with these social butterflies. Once there’s a good “vibe” going on, the team spirit tends to develop naturally. If I had the chance, I would build teams around these social butterflies, because there’s a lot of flexibility involved. You could group up the high performers together to deliver results quickly, or have a mixed cast of members to build healthy teams for the long run.

But be warned, switching out team members is a huge power move that should only be used sparingly. Any corporate attempts to force relations tend to backfire easily, so thread carefully. (Remember ice-breaking sessions and how dreadful they can be?)


This newsletter dragged on longer than expected, so I’ll break it into two parts. Frankly, companies should be doing fine if they manage to get Pride and People in check, but maintaining a culture on these two alone can be risky and unpredictable.

For instance, what happens if one of the social butterflies decides to leave the company? What if the path to profitability involves breaking the rules and ethics the company tried so hard to cultivate?

Hence, in part two, I’ll discuss how Systems and Agency play a key role in developing healthy company cultures. It is more predictable, measurable, and actionable within a set amount of time. So, please do sign up to my newsletter for regular updates and written pieces!

Cheers,

Jotham

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