Tag Archives: Workplace Culture

Work Group Culture: Be Intentional

Every organization has a culture. It may be hard to describe but everyone feels it. Culture is the organization’s character and personality. It is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. It is affected by leadership roles and actions, organizational systems, management philosophies and practices, the physical environment of the workspace, and so on. It is pervasive.

Work groups also have a culture. These are created by the overall organizational culture, of course, but also by the group’s individual leader. While group leaders often won’t be able to totally control their group’s culture, they can have a significant influence.

Among the many decisions leaders make– intentionally or not – that affect culture are:

  • How will group members communicate with each other: by email, in person, a combination of both?
  • What kind of work hours will be required – and when?
  • How must employees manifest their “commitment” to the job – by doing good work, working long hours, something else?
  • Is input on management decisions discouraged or encouraged?
  • Can employees speak frankly to management about their concerns?
  • What kind of behaviors are allowed – frequent swearing, expressions of anger, gossip, cliquishness?
  • What is done to make everyone on the team feel included and appreciated?
  • Is there overt or subtle favoritism on the part of management?
  • Are employees accountable for their actions or is blaming others the norm?
  • Are different approaches and personalities respected?
  • Do people laugh enough — in a good way?

If you’re a leader, it is well worth your while to take some time to answer these questions and others that come to mind. If things are not going as well as you hope, the underlying culture of your group may be a part of the problem and once identified, you can work on it. Don’t hesitate to bring team members into the discussion — just involving them will be a start to improving the culture.

One caution. Sometimes, leaders and employees will refer favorably to their workgroup as a “family.” This is a nice idea, but has its definite perils. As an idealized concept, family brings to mind a friendly, casual, and supportive workplace. However, families also have a host of behaviors that are not helpful or appropriate in the workplace. Within their families, people can be emotional, behave badly, discuss very personal issues, retain grudges, and so on. Families have very different boundaries than those required in a workplace. More bluntly: a family is just not a very professional environment!

A different paradigm is needed: one that includes the positive aspects of “family,” without bringing in those aspects that are not appropriate in the workplace context.

What other questions should a leader ask when evaluating his or her work group’s culture?

~Amy Stephson


The American Workplace: Can We Learn From Israel?

I just read a fascinating interview on the New York Times “Freakonomics” blog with Dan Senor and Saul Singer, the authors of a new book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.  The book explores how and why Israel, a tiny (7.1 million people) and beleaguered (to say the least) country, has the highest density of tech start-ups which attract by far the most venture capital dollars per capita in the world.  One reason: Israel is a nation of immigrants.  Two other points made in the interview (and book) were also relevant to U.S. workplaces.

First, the authors say, Israelis have an abundance of “chutzpah” – gall, brazenness, effrontery combined with arrogance, or gutsy audacity – which has both positive and negative connotations.  They quote Intel executive Mooly Eden, who ran cross-cultural seminars on “Israeliness” when Intel came to Israel in the 1970’s, “from the age of zero we are educated to challenge the obvious, ask questions, debate everything, innovate.”  Eden adds, “it’s more complicated to manage five Israelis than 50 Americans because [the Israelis] will challenge you all the time – starting with “Why are you my manager; why am I not your manager?”

This is all quite different from American workplaces.  But it’s food for thought: maybe we need to figure out a way to encourage (and allow) more boldness and questioning of the status quo on the part of employees, while still maintaining our essential politeness and respect for order. 

Second, at age 18, all non-Arab Israeli citizens must serve in the military for at least two years.  Some serve in elite tech units, obtaining superb technical training, and all get experience in teamwork, mission orientation, leadership, and public service.  This gives them a level of experience and maturity early in life that most young Americans don’t have. 

So how does this apply here?  In the interview, the authors suggest that U.S. employers need to learn to “leverage the business talents of young people with military experience.”  They say many corporate executives are “illiterate” when it comes to reading a military resume and discount the leadership experience many soldiers gain.  Given our ever-growing number of young veterans, this is important advice.

Though it does raise a question: Can U.S. workplaces both encourage and allow more questioning boldness and at the same time incorporate more military veterans into positions of leadership?  Am I stereotyping American military (and general workplace) culture? What do you think?  ~AS