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Workplace culture — Habits, rituals & ceremonies

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What is company culture? It turns out to be an amazing time to ask that question. The last few years have seen a lot of companies lead the pack in innovating in workplaces and also publicly talk about their culture to make themselves more attractive to employees, investors and customers.

This is for anyone who is curious about ‘workplace culture’ or ‘company culture’. I imagine anyone reading this has already scoured the interwebs and found a bunch of articles listing exercises and activities that many companies practice but haven’t found a systematic approach to implementing it.

To understand this topic, let’s take a look at how culture is really passed along in organizations. In most new employee orientation sessions the new members are presented with mission and value statements. They are made aware of the company culture through the use of videos or presentations of publicly shared characteristics that are representative of the organization.

Believing that culture can be introduced through this process is an illusion. In the famous Netflix Culture deck, Reed Hastings outlines 7 Aspects of the Netflix Culture. The first aspect ‘Values are what we value’ he clearly says ‘Actual company values are behaviors & skills that are valued in fellow employees’.

The myth of ‘creating’ culture

Creating culture is somewhat a trend in today’s corporate world. Silicon Valley companies have put a spotlight on company culture so much so that it is now one of the biggest considerations when new employees choose their employers. Due to this, many companies are trying to figure out how to ‘create culture’ within their organizations. In reality, it is not a question of whether we will or will not create culture. The only question is what type of culture will be created?

Organizational culture is represented by a characteristic set of behaviors, revealed in what people do and say. — Boston Consulting Group

Companies create culture through their behaviors, actions, and decisions every day…they always have, and always will.

Learning from family rituals

Most of my childhood was spent in Bangalore, India. I don’t have a photographic memory and often find it hard to remember many specific memories from my childhood. However there are parts of my childhood that are clearly imprinted in my mind:

  • Repeatedly reciting math multiplication tables while my mom cooked in the kitchen around 7:00 pm.
  • Listening to my mother read the story of Shivaji, a valiant Indian warrior king who she admired, in candle light when there were one-hour power cuts 3 times a week.
  • Waking up at 4:00 am just to say ‘bye’ to my dad when he used to leave home for his business trips.
  • Traveling to the city where my grandmother lived, every summer for 2 months during school summer break.
  • Going for a drive after dinner to get ice cream every Sunday with the parents as a treat for the week.

These were just a few of the family rituals that I remember from my childhood that I associate with my family’s identity. The values I grew up with were embedded through these behaviors that were engrained in me as a part of my daily life. Based on the behaviors above, if my parents had to make posters, they would read:

  • Practice makes perfect
  • Use every opportunity to learn something
  • Show respect to your elders
  • Make time to bond with your family
  • Celebrate small wins together & often

However, there were no posters around my house or anywhere else to tell us this is what we had to stand for. It was the tiny rituals that taught us.

Putting ‘culture’ into practice

As a species, we’ve developed behaviors that guide us through major transitions in our lives — the passage from one state to the next. Across cultures and throughout history, behaviors have defined the people, narrated rich and meaningful stories, and created opportunities for us to bond with one another as human beings.

What does all of this mean for workplace culture? What are the right behaviors to look for in an organization? When it comes to our work lives, our behaviors are weak shadows of what they could be. It’s not about one-off team-building exercises and a good orientation day.

True culture lies in the habits, rituals & ceremonies that are practiced by the people in the workplace. It’s about the stories’ people share after taking part in them. It’s about consistency, doing it and sharing it.

Employees are truly introduced to the culture of the company by listening to the stories told informally by those who have been around the organization for a while and are truly part of it when they start practicing these actions.

So, the best workplace culture should be built on a combination of these 3 fundamental behaviors:

1. Habits

These happen at an individual employee level and can be practiced often (even daily based on the habit). Employees can have habits to transform ourselves, to become someone we aspire to be.

2. Rituals

These happen at the team-level and can be practiced weekly or monthly. Teams can have rituals to bond with each other, to stay in the loop and to building a sense community.

3. Ceremonies

These happen at an organizational level and can happen every quarter. Companies can use ceremonies to celebrate successes and ceremonies to connect & communicate with all employees.

The bottom line: if you want a happier company, you need to create behaviors across employees, teams and the entire company to build, practice and retell the stories of your positive moments and demonstrate the ability to bounce back from the difficult ones.

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