workplace culture

Caveat lector – this is not a fully formed thought, I’m just trying to get some ideas down.

I worked with a guy (not a friend) who was obsessed by workplace culture. As near as I could tell, he came from an environment with an entirely different culture and didn’t care for the one we had. At one point, he and another person (a friend) gave a talk on culture. They described different aspects of culture, including appearance and behavior.

Workplace culture is important. Studies have shown that companies with a “positive” culture are more productive. What I don’t have a good sense of is whether the culture causes productivity, productivity causes positive culture or if the two are correlated but not causally determined.

I tend to think that workplace culture is an evolved group response to circumstances. Changing the external manifestations of culture, without changing the circumstances that the culture evolved in response to, is pointless. Cultures (workplace and other) seem to be “evolutionarily stable strategies” (ESS). In evolutionary biology, an ESS is a strategy that *if* adopted by all members of the population can not be beaten by adopting another strategy. Essentially, deviations from the norm are penalized, driving the population back to the norm.

I suspect that what makes cultures so difficult to change is that they are ESSs. Trying to change culture by changing specific behaviors or by bringing in a new employee exhibiting the desire behavior, is destined to fail, because success within the culture depends on behaving with the cultural norms. I think that the only way to change cultures is to identify the underlying issues that caused the culture to evolve and to address those issues.

For example, I know of people that would like to see their work environment be more innovative – like (they perceive) Apple’s or Google’s. To get there, they try to encourage people to be more creative in their jobs or they propose that we all dress in a cool, hip way, like the Apple “geniuses” (seriously, I’m not making this up). The problem is that if you perceive that the culture is not creative, it is likely the case that the work place does not reward creativity. For example, as I understand it, Google allows employees to spend up to one day a week working on a personally chosen, pie-in-the-sky project. But to do that, they’ve had to overstaff. If they didn’t overstaff, then people spending time on random projects would cause other things to break.

So, if you want your culture to be more like Google’s, then you may have to consider overstaffing in order to get there. You can’t just expect that encouraging people to change their behavior and to be innovative will work

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