How to Avoid Creating a Poor Work Culture
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021
The Great Resignation of 2021, now extending into 2022, has highlighted a number of issues in the modern workplace, not the least of which is the importance of a company’s culture. How valued do your employees feel? Is their role in your business’s overall success clear to them? Do they have clear career paths?
Studies in recent years — from the Gallup organization, to the Society for Human Resource Management — have suggested that disgruntled employees leave bad managers more than they leave companies. Based on Culture Amp data, Didier Elzinga, co-founder and CEO, believes managers matter, but not nearly so much as leadership and opportunities for development.
All of these factors are part of a company’s work culture.
Ascertaining the quality of your work culture.
Is your company’s culture a good one or a poor one? Many things contribute to the overall effect, but there are several major themes you can explore:
- Do your managers treat their subordinates with respect?
- Do your workers understand their role in the company’s bigger picture?
- Does each worker understand what it would take to advance to their next work level?
- What about your mission — does everyone know why the company does what it does?
- Are there opportunities to feel proud of the work that the company does?
- Can employees speak up freely about work issues without fear of retribution?
There are also any number of culture metrics you can look at, perhaps the most telling of which is employee turnover. Is your turnover higher or lower than that of your competitors? Do you know the primary reasons workers give for leaving your company for a competitor or for different work altogether?
It helps to identify the root of the problem: “Are we losing people, and that's why we don't have culture, because no one stays here long enough?” asked Willink. “Or is it because we don't have culture, and that's why we lose people? I'm going to go ahead and say, we don't have culture. And that's why we're losing people.”
“If you build an organization correctly, and you treat people with respect, and you're not paranoid about them leaving,” as WIllink said, “you will maintain way more people than you would if you try and hide them, and keep them down and not give them information.”
Building a better work culture.
If you determine that your work culture is not a positive one, then where do you start to improve it?
According to Willink, “There's a couple ways to do it. The first way is to model the correct behavior about what we're doing and how we do it. The other important part is to capture the stories that make us who we are.” Which, as he notes, many companies don’t do well. “Culture is stories from the past: about where we came from, what we've done.”
Building a functional internal culture is not the same as crafting stories that are told externally. For example, as Willink remembers from his Navy SEAL days, “The culture inside the SEAL teams was strong: oral history, things hanging on the wall, flags from the Vietnam War. Those things are internal to the company. They weren't external.”
There are plenty of ways to begin to tell your company’s story and support a positive, involving internal culture:
- Talk about the projects you’ve completed — talk about what you’ve built.
- Explain what you’ve added to your local community.
- Showcase people who’ve come up through the ranks and tell their stories.
- Reinforce the connections among individuals, teams, and the success of the firm.
An organization’s culture rarely just magically arises. It has to be built: by modeling correct behavior and capturing stories that represent who you are and who you want to be. As Willink said, “Think about what a construction company is: A construction company builds the economy inside this country. And, on top of that, it builds the basically everlasting things that make up our landscape. What an incredible story to be able to tell.”
Look at what you’re doing — inside the organization — so that people understand their role in the company’s history and successes.
It’s not unusual to hear companies say they’re reluctant to share their stories, for fear that their better employees will be poached by competitors or other businesses. To the extent that the stories are being shared to build your internal culture, there’s very little risk, because everyone knows who Fred the foreman is. Telling his story can strengthen the bonds your workers have with each other and with the company itself.
The presence of a positive internal culture is not only a tool for retention. It can help with recruiting as well. You can easily offer examples of people who’ve been with your firm for 14 or 24 years and say what they’ve built, and how they’ve contributed to making your company what it is today…and making it a company your young recruit will want to join.
This all ties back to the leadership concept of extreme ownership. You're responsible. Take care of your people, and they're going to take care of you. As Willink said, “If I'm treating my people well, and I know that I'm giving them a good job, a good outcome, a good future, I'm not worried about losing them.”
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021