Culture Matters

Company culture is not an easy topic for most engineering leaders. We tend to enjoy thinking about the subdomain of engineering culture, as it is something we have experience with and we can identify healthy and unhealthy examples. Poor code check-ins, test failures, slow progress on stories—these are problems engineering leaders regularly face and are comfortable digging into, even if the root causes are deep.

But higher-lever company culture issues are harder to pinpoint. You probably have an instinctive feel for the company culture, loving it when it is good and suffering when it is bad, but, as a leader, what can you do to maintain or enhance it?

Starting With Values

Most tech companies have explicit core values. Why care about them? Because no company can specify every behavior, every approach, and all of your considerations as you go about your job.  You wouldn’t want them to try. Instead, the values are general guidance that you can consistently apply.

Examples of values from my past companies include: Genuine, Humility, Trust, Exceptional, Innovative, Growth, Involved, Ownership, Positive Mental Attitude, Equality, and Intensity.

These are perfectly fine words, but without context they are subject to interpretation. For example, does ownership mean “Owning up to problems and mistakes” or “Granting true ownership to teams and individuals”? Or both? Or neither? I have yet to encounter a company that tosses out values without a deeper explanation behind them, so don’t memorize the words. Instead, find the intended meaning.

If you don’t know the values, make some effort to learn what they are. If you are thinking of joining a company, read up on its values, consider what they mean, think about how they might apply to your responses, and see how or if they are referenced during the interviews. Likewise, if you are interviewing candidates, consider how they might or might not align with your company values. Anyone who actively disagrees with your company’s values, yourself included, will not be the right fit for your company. 

Some companies give sporadic lip service to their values and ignore them the rest of the time. That’s unfortunate, because values are the cornerstone upon which a company culture is built. It is still possible to have a positive, useful culture without acknowledged values, but it is harder to maintain and evangelize a common culture without an agreed-upon core.

Your Company Has A Culture

Whether your company’s values are specified, clear, and aligned, or missing, weak, and ignored, your company has a culture.

The culture incorporates things such as how people behave, how they treat others, how they address problems and opportunities, and what they expect of each other. A culture can be good, bad—or, as is often the case, mixed. 

You will know which of the following common examples of company culture fall into good or bad categories, or if they are situational. Once you start thinking about these sorts of behaviors, you should be able to identify those that characterize your own company’s culture.

Employees intensely compete with each other.

Recognition is timely, and is appropriately praise or admonition.

Employees are willing to speak up.

Employees feel that management or other groups work to different standards.

People are comfortable taking responsibility for mistakes.

Employees enjoy sharing negative stories about the company.

Some people are routinely late for work and/or meetings.

Employees regularly contribute innovative ideas.

Culture is how people operate when no one is looking. It influences how people do their work. Culture—good or bad—is contagious. The company culture is naturally adopted by new employees as they join. It is closely correlated with morale and productivity.

Because the elements of a culture can seem intangible, it is easy to shrug your shoulders and believe “it is what it is.” But, as a leader, you have a greater responsibility to positively influence the values, beliefs, and practices that make up your company’s culture. If the culture is poor, lead the improvement. If it is good, represent it and maintain it. Reward the good culture and call out the bad. How you act, what you say, and your attitude set the tone. Your standards need to be clear, consistent, and fair. Let your decisions and actions be a model for others. Cultures grow and evolve, but leaders guide the process.

Not A Job For One Person

I have just described your role in your company’s culture because you can and should control yourself. But maintaining or improving culture is rarely a one-person job.

When digging into cultural concerns, start by determining what is really going on. Don’t assume! Ask a wide variety of trusted people for their honest opinions. Do this privately, before you weigh in, so that their answers are not biased by other’s thoughts. Don’t be surprised if different people have different perspectives. Cultural problems often stem from discrepancies between groups, so two perspectives may differ but both still be accurate.

Culture problems often manifest when people feel that:

1. Their group is unfairly treated as compared to others, or

2. Management does not hold themselves to the same standards.

To be clear: if you have isolated bad apples in your company, the problems are with them. If you have groups of people with poor behaviors, you have a culture problem.

Engage with people at the appropriate levels to devise remedial plans. Consider the evidence and your approach carefully. You may need to suggest changes to powerful groups (such as management), who might not have considered that their behaviors could be part of the overall problem.

Words alone may work, but it’s rare that you can successfully dictate cultural changes. It’s more likely your plan will need to address multiple behaviors and root causes across various groups. This is where your investigation and planning pays off. If you have identified key causes, you can create a comprehensive plan to address them. Action on underlying concerns can build trust, raise morale, and a sow a fertile field for your proposals.

If you are working at a company that has good safety, your work to properly identify issues and solutions should be appreciated. Companies with this level of self-awareness and willingness to change have the potential to build great cultures. And yes, there are companies that are considered to have great cultures!

Working at a company with good or great culture is rewarding—those are the places you want to stay. Leading at one of these companies is even better, as the culture naturally guides everyone in positive directions, making the job that much easier. 

Conversely, leading at a company with significant culture problems is tough. Systemic problems need to be addressed at a high level. A toxic environment may well have originated from high up! In this case, consider whether you can realistically have any impact or if you must leave for your own health and sanity.

I realize that some companies fit into a gray zone between “toxic” and “okay, but not somewhere I can raise tough issues.” Make that call yourself, based upon conversations with those you trust and your assessment of your company’s culture. (I am writing under the assumption that you feel safe attempting to make improvements at your company.)

If It Was Easy

Your company culture will have a fundamental impact on your company’s (and your own) morale and productivity. If you are an engineering leader (the intended audience for my blog), you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to consider the state of the values and culture at your company, and how you might be able to positively affect them.

Changes of this nature are not easy, but to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Masses of web resources and books define, explain, and evangelize values and culture in far more detail than I have here. Take advantage of the resources and figure out why culture matters.

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