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Your Culture Is Not Unique and Doesn’t Need to Be


Fri Nov 09 2018

Your Culture Is Not Unique and Doesn’t Need to Be

When any movement gains momentum for a sustained period of time, the “\[Insert Movement\] Is Dead” headline appears like clockwork. The corporate culture movement is no exception. Yet the recent death knell piece in MIT Sloan Management Review, The End of Corporate Culture as We Know It, is more perceptive than prophetic because the future is already here.

Having worked in the world of culture in various forms—leader, builder, guide—for the past decade, I’ve been exposed to a myriad of organizational cultures. During that time, I have come to believe we are all striving for the same thing: the best way for humans to work together, produce great results, and feel good about how those results are achieved.


It’s been my experience that most corporate value systems and cultures connect to three things:

  • the impact our work has on a person’s life (think: connect to a higher purpose)

  • the way we interact with one another(think: don’t be a jerk)

  • the approach we take to produce results (think: get your work done, and done well).

An organization’s values generally ladder up to one of these three categories. We all want teamwork, but call it different things. We all want to make money, but increasingly not at the expense of our humanity and general enjoyment of life. We all want to think our organization is special and unique, but it’s really not.

Why? Because we are all humans trying our best based on what we know. Some folks have been exposed to work in a way that elevates people and profit. Others have toiled in pure performance cultures, emotion and humanity be damned. And we typically learn by what we’ve been exposed to, not knowing there is another way.

That’s not to say all workplaces will look the same. But I think the difference resides more in the people and intentional work around culture than in a specific connection to the outward expression of the brand. At least at first.

Perhaps I’m just setting a low bar because of the nature of most workplaces and their decided un-humanness. Perhaps organizations need to operate first as a human culture before they can be a distinct culture. And, right now, human is distinct.


The data is in on what makes more human cultures:

  • connection purpose

  • genuine relationships

  • psychological safety

  • transparency

  • autonomy in how work is accomplished

  • clarity of expectations

  • excelling as a team

  • opportunities to learn.

I’m sure there are more pillars; you can check out any number of culture measurement tools for a broader list. I believe this is what the MIT Sloan article refers to as “universal rules of engagement.”

Beyond being “human” then, what can make an organization unique? It’s more degrees on a dial than yes or no levers, and it can be dictated by intended outward expression of your brand. In general, a culture’s uniqueness—and humanness—is determined by the degree to which it is:

  • goal-oriented vs. journey-oriented: High-fives only when targets are hit or appreciation for each moment trying to change the world

  • formal vs. irreverent: buttoned-up and top-down or encouraging everyone’s freak flag to fly

  • innovative vs. incremental: bold steps and looking for what’s next or driving efficiency and improving at the margins

  • fast-paced vs. slow-paced: a relentless idea and execution machine no matter the hour or allowing for down-time and methodical in decision-making?

  • high-risk vs. low-risk: learn by doing and accepting of failure or conservative and staying the course

  • structured vs. entrepreneurial: detailed in planning and how to execute at every level or localized opportunity identification and figuring it out.

Each dial and orientation can either be rooted in humanness or not. And, no organization will be pegged on either side of these dials, given the various roles and complexities of business.

Bottom line: Cultivating culture in any organization is hard work because it is a challenge to align human beings at scale. After all, the diversity of thought and experience is what the richness of the human experience is all about. However, if you want to be unique and benefit from that richness, you should get to human first.


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