If you’re a leader in an organization, culture is not just part of your job. It’s your most important job.
Look no further than the dramatic fall of Uber’s founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, whose destructive behavior had catastrophic effects on the organization. When customers begin to brag online that they’ve deleted your app, you know you’re in trouble.
On the flip side, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft – only the third in its 40-year history – is leading one of the largest and most public corporate culture change efforts we’ve seen in recent times. In his book, “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” Nadella shares his ambitious effort to transform Microsoft from what he calls “a know-it-all culture” to a “learn-it-all culture.”
Nadella’s relentless focus on rediscovering Microsoft’s soul and reshaping its culture is deeply personal, but it’s also a strategic bet on helping Microsoft regain its market dominance. Since he took over, Microsoft’s stock has been on a steadily rising trajectory.
These are two examples of culture’s critical importance to the overall health of businesses – but they aren’t (and won’t be) the only ones.
It’s an unsettling time for many employees. The future of work seems increasingly in flux, causing great anxiety for many. The #MeToo and #Timesup movements are setting new transparency and accountability standards. Across all sectors, poor leadership decisions can be instantly captured and tweeted to a global audience. The stakes for creating vibrant, diverse and compassionate cultures have never been greater.
Culture Can Be Designed
All too often, culture is treated transactionally and delegated to the human resources team. But we can’t build generative and trusting work environments merely by hanging “values” posters or hosting fun offsites and happy hours. Creating vibrant, enduring culture requires an intentional and authentic connection between the people who work there and what the company stands for, strengthened through explicit and implicit reward systems, daily interactions and informal exchanges.
It’s time that we stop thinking that culture happens to us, and instead take responsibility for designing inclusive environments, collaborative ways of working, and humane incentive systems that bring out the best in ourselves and in others. It certainly helps when culture is modeled at the top, like the change that Nadella is sparking at Microsoft, but we are all capable of making more positive choices that create meaning and shared purpose – regardless of our official role or title.
“Clear communication is critical – but words are empty without follow-through.”
By enlisting the principles of human-centered design, we can discover what people really care about in their work, what enables them to do their best work, and what gets in the way. This starts with practicing deep empathy, observation and listening across the organization. It requires an open stance toward learning and experimentation. There is no better place to use this methodology than with the people that work in and for your organization.
Designing Culture Starts with Deep Empathy
Christopher Adkins teaches values-based leadership at Notre Dame, where he directs the Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership. Teaching empathy lies at the core of most of his classes. “Empathy can be so misunderstood. Most people equate it with sympathy and compassion. Yet empathy is the core skill for understanding each other. The effort to see and feel as others do helps us ‘stand-under’ another’s experience. And while we may not be able to fully see and feel as another, such efforts send the signal that we value the other’s point of view – and this is the foundation for trust.”
Adkins often gets brought in by executive teams to help align their organization’s values and mission. Adkins does this through storytelling, asking each leader to share a specific story where an individual exhibited the culture and the organization’s values at their best. Two listeners are assigned to silently observe and take notes. One captures the key words and phrases that were said, and the other watches for body language and emotional connection. Then they rotate, so everyone gets a turn being interviewed, listening, and observing. Afterwards, they compare notes on what they noticed, helping each other deepen the meaning of values at the personal and organizational level. The results can be profound.
This deep level of understanding is particularly important for topics steeped in difference, like diversity and inclusion. Adkins pushes leaders to think deeply about “how” foundational questions: “How do you understand those words? How do you describe them? How do you feel them? How are you going to say the words AND how will they be heard?” By more deeply understanding ourselves, we can deepen our connection with others.
Well-designed Cultures Stay Robust Through Learning and Experimentation
At Nuna, a San Francisco health tech startup, culture isn’t just a static statement – it’s a lived practice that’s embodied and championed through grassroots culture ambassadors throughout the entire organization. Drawing on her deep background in improvisational theater, Culture Lead Karrah Phillips facilitates a regular gathering with this cross-organizational group to practice behaviors that support Nuna’s core values in action.
“It’s a learning lab,” Philips notes. “We try out new ways of working that we hope cascade out to the organization – to create ripple effects of more engaging and empathetic ways of working.”
One of the insights that emerged from the ambassador gatherings was employees felt meetings were taking over their schedules, leaving little time to do critical work. Rather than jumping to a solution like “Meeting Free Wednesdays,” they worked to understand the nuances behind the frustration. Together they prototyped a new design-centered guidebook that outlined best practices for different types of meetings: working meetings, approval meetings, a-sync meetings, online/Slack meetings, etc.
Before implementing the meeting protocol, the team asked all staff to experiment with a meeting-free week to so they could see the differences in productivity and engagement that an open calendar produced. Managers were asked to add meetings only if they had specific functionality or utility to the attendee or the project.
The guides have liberated thousands of working hours and pent-up frustration, and have become part of the onboarding process for all new hires. Nuna is already discussing the next meeting-free experiment and iteration.
Design and Culture Depend on Details
It takes intention and attention to clarify and codify the specific practices we want to reward and to weed out the ones that undermine a high-integrity culture.
Clear communication is critical – but words are empty without follow-through.
The gap between what leaders say they care about and the behaviors that are actually modeled, repeated and rewarded can be one of the most toxic and destabilizing aspects of creating a healthy culture. Georgetown University leadership coach and faculty Rae Ringel calls this disconnect the “audio-video gap.”
How many times have we heard leaders proclaim the need to be innovative without allowing for mistakes or failure? How often do leaders talk about the importance of inclusiveness and diversity, but do nothing to change the overrepresentation of one demographic on the leadership team or in the marketing visuals and language?
In his recent book, “The Culture Code,” Daniel Coyle explores the conditions that create robust, high-functioning teams and organizations. His research boils down to three main skills that leaders must do exceptionally well: build psychological safety, express vulnerability, and create a shared purpose. These practices build feelings of belonging, connection and care – foundational human qualities that amplify individual and collective contributions and commitment.
Many cultural breakdowns are caused by micro-moments, laden with unspoken biases and behaviors that may seem innocuous, but can have devastating effects. Where do people sit in meetings; who speaks first; how are people introduced; who is expected to get coffee; who takes notes; whose questions are answered; who sends the follow-up summary?
These “little” details really matter.
If Not You, Then Who?
Changing culture is a slow, lengthy, arduous process and can feel overwhelming. I often encounter leaders who are too set in their ways to stimulate their environment. “These are great ideas,” I sometimes hear, “but they’d never work in this organization. It’s just not part of our culture.”
Whenever this happens, I want to hand him or her a mirror and ask, “Who is responsible for establishing, modeling, and ingraining your company’s culture?” Culture is not someone else’s responsibility. It’s up to each of us.
As organizations continue to shift from more hierarchical, command-and-control models to more networked, decentralized platforms, a clear, consistent, and trustworthy culture will become even more important. Culture is what keeps people doing their best work and working well together, regardless of title or status. Culture is one of the most liberating investments we can make – it nourishes and unleashes our core humanity and connects us with others. Our humanity is something that technology cannot replace and is the superpower that will allow us to adapt and thrive in a dynamic world.