Company Culture Is A Myth. Instead, Get Small Teams In Sync.
Humans struggle to stay in tune with more than 150 people at once, according to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar.
In the last few decades, there’s been little quibble with the rallying call of business guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for lunch!” Since the late 1990s, the modern work culture movement has convinced leaders that a single, unified company culture is the solution to driving employee engagement and organizational performance. This philosophy suggests that when you crack the culture formula, the impact is something close to mainlining adrenaline into your employees. The flip side, of course, is the implication that companies that don’t have world-class, fast-moving cultures are destined to become roadkill for what is zooming up behind them.
The march of technology giants to the top of the stock exchanges over the last decade has helped to redouble our obsession with corporate culture. Tech workers sporting t-shirts emblazoned with the logo of their firm has made outsiders fear that they might be missing a motivational trick.
But branded clothing aside, upon closer inspection, the realities of corporate culture continually fail to live up to the mythology. Surveys of workers’ attitudes repeatedly show that employees’ first-hand experience of work owes less to their company’s values and more to who their direct boss is.
The problem with culture is that humans are complex, and establishing a coherent, consistent ethos across a large organization is both unrealistic and can even be counterproductive. Company culture seeks emotional consistency at scale. It aims for an identical experience in New Hampshire and Nevada. In so doing it eliminates nuance, it eradicates variance and by consequence it deletes the human element of its expression. What sets out to be a culture quickly becomes a script. Company culture becomes the mask we put on to show we’re along for the ride. If we’re not careful we can spend millions of dollars trying to instigate a collective mindset that is insincerely held by most employees.
So what are firms to do? Instead of focusing on mass culture, leaders of large companies should focus on improving the “sync” of small teams.
The ball started rolling on the work culture movement in the 1980s, when business leaders enviously eyed the syncopated energy of some of Japan’s most admired companies. Japanese firms just seemed really “together,” and focused in pursuit of efficient growth. It wasn’t long before this trend became a new Western philosophy of work. Iconic leaders increasingly appeared able to beat their chests and roar about their own turbo-charged cultures. We became enchanted with talk of company values and corporate mission.
The reality of work was a long way from this. The challenge of trying to forge consistent values across thousands of geographically dispersed workers is far harder to achieve than organizations like to project externally.
Despite talk of company culture, the ADP Leadership Institute recently published a global survey of employee engagement showing that corporate values had very limited impact on employee experience. What mattered was the team that people were in - who they worked with, rather than the slogans of the firm. There was more variance of experience of work within companies than between companies.
Humans struggle to "sync" with more than 150 people
With that evidence in mind, it is worth considering the cognitive complexities of humans that make bigger company cultures an aspiration but rarely a reality. Many of us may have a passing familiarity with the work of anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research on group dynamics. His research found that the limits of human cognition restricted the number of trusting relationships we were able to form. ‘Dunbar’s Number’ was set at around 150 relationships. Dunbar felt that our cerebral neocortex would struggle to cope with numbers higher than this. We can endeavor to form relationships groups larger than 150 people, but they lack the mutual codependence of smaller groups. Across our home life, local communities and work, humans can be in sync with 150 other humans, but we struggle to go beyond that. Despite these cerebral limitations, we constantly try to edge our organizations bigger, make teams larger, and adorn office walls with slogans to profess shared values when it doesn’t immediately seem to work.
One of the problems with this approach is that it creates dissonance for people. Our minds are unable to create trusting bonds with so many others but our success at work depends upon us demonstrating that we have bought into those bonds. This is one of the ways that corporate culture can actually backfire. Tony Hsieh, former boss at Zappos, famously mandated a happiness culture amongst his employees, and professed a willingness to fire workers who didn’t comply with it. But bosses can no more mandate happiness than totalitarian rulers can. Fear of firing is unlikely to elicit a genuine emotional connection, so instead, we adopt a compliant mask of accord. And while most workers don’t face the sanction of dismissal, it’s clear that it would be foolish to disagree with the spoken norms.
This would be a sorry story if there wasn’t a suitable alternative. For leaders looking for the caffeinated hit of motivated workers, there is plenty of evidence that such a thing exists - it’s merely on a smaller scale. The aforementioned Robin Dunbar was amongst a group of researchers at Oxford University who observed that rowers who were in a team were able to tolerate twice as much pain as those who rowed alone. Being in “sync” with those around us seems to have a magical ability to increase our resilience, team cohesion and work rate. This sync is measurable in work and non-work contexts. Ask members of a choir to describe their relationship with fellow singers and they tend to associate emotions way beyond how familiar they are with one another.
What is sync? Sync is a connection at a human, empathetic level that brings a team together in trusted alignment. Evidence from multiple studies shows that humans derive a sense of wellbeing, belonging, and happiness from being in synchrony with those around us. It won’t escape you that this is when we elevate our relationships from being anonymous to being one of Dunbar’s trusted 150. When we fall into sync with others it is measurable; like the rowers, we can observe a surge in endorphins when colleagues feel connected with each other.
There are a few simple ways to foster sync among team members.
Suggest an unplanned break
Scheduled team meetings don’t create sync, but spontaneous, unplanned breaks with co-workers do. A recent experiment tracking workers at a Bank of America call center observed that by giving neighboring workers a simultaneous (rather than staggered) break, their productivity rose 23 percent and their stress levels dropped by a fifth. Allowing workers to get into a state of sync with each other had an immediate impact of improving their experience of work. Similarly, the Swedes have long extolled the virtues of “‘fika," a mid-afternoon pause for caffeine and cake as a way for them to connect and engage. The websites of IKEA and Volvo both make reference to fika as an important component of Swedish working life.
Research from multiple sources suggests that laughter performs numerous functions in teams – it builds trust, helps us bond with each other, facilitates group coordination, opens our minds to creativity, and makes us feel safe. Teams that laugh and joke together tend to be better able to open up and share challenges with each other – particularly important for coping with stress and enhancing creative problem solving.
Know when to leave people alone
While connection is crucial to building sync, that’s not to suggest that leaders must force team members into constant dialogue and communication. Rather, sync is about people working together in harmony. It's about individuals thinking and applying grey matter to difficult problems, alone – and then discussing, polishing, and finessing as a group. A team in sync will do both.
The next time you hear about a company culture initiative, ask yourself the question: what would happen if we allowed individual managers the scope to build their teams? The smaller scale sync that results could transform your results.
Bruce Daisley is the author of EAT SLEEP WORK REPEAT: 30 Hacks For Bringing Joy To Your Job (HarperOne; February 2020). He was previously Twitter's most senior employee outside of the United States, in his role of Vice President across Europe, Middle East and Africa.