Cultural Quandaries: Why Organizational Culture Matters

Attention leaders of creative firms: your organizational culture is far more critical than you might think. The authors of the new book Broken explain why. 

Broken: Navigating the Ups and Downs of the Circus Called Work is a humorous, insightful, no-nonsense and occasionally profane book about coping with the demands of the modern creative workplace. Authors Nate Burgos (founder of Design Feast) and Stephanie Di Biase dig into many challenging aspects of today's work world, including culture. 

Here's an excerpt from Broken on cultural problems you can't afford to ignore:

Culture Is Like Holding Jell-O on a Hot Day

Culture is a funny word. It's hard to define or quantify. It's like trying to hold Jell-O on a hot day. Yet despite the lack of a clear definition, culture is everything. Culture is the interior design, how people are dressed, what the hardware looks like, even the quality of the restrooms. It's what kind of snacks are free in the kitchen and how late you can roll in without a dirty look. It's especially about people and how they act. You may work for a company that claims to demonstrate an "open workspace" until you notice that the cube walls are taller than you and the floor looks like a labyrinth. Or the workspace is physically open but the people interact as if they're surrounded by walls.

Cultural problems, whether or not they take place at a creative agency, are not always intentional. In our experience, cultural problems exist because they're ignored. The work culture ends up being the sum of thousands of tiny interactions or experiences you have with anyone and anything composing a company. The experience of such a culture brings up recurring questions: How do people treat me? How does the company seem to treat me? How am I rewarded? Or what behavior gets rewarded? Instead of an intentional strategic plan, culture happens almost by accident.

Cultural Bummers 

Interrupters: People (generally with manager in their title), emails, phone calls, meetings. These are the things that completely derail your day and make you completely lose focus.

Drama: People like drama. People like talking about other people, gossiping around the water cooler, the hallway nook, the cafeteria, the conference room, or discussing how smart they are and how dumb other people are. It's distracting.

Collaboration: Most people see this as a good word. We'd like to as well, but all too often, we've seen the word to mean something like: I am going to tell you how to do your job or vice versa. We've also seen collaboration applied to a group of 10 people in a room. This is not collaboration, it's anarchy.

Fitting in: Oh, creative agency land. You are stereotypically full of designer denim, Converse, tattoos, and other hipster flair. It can be a little like high school all over again where you may be rocking a Mickey Mouse jean jacket, while the others are rocking skin-tight neon-colored leggings (or jeggings or meggings). Seriously though, there appears to be a secret dress code (usually opposite to the dress code in some employee manual). If you don't fit in, you fear you will be mocked behind your back. It hurts.

Superhuman mentalities: These are the well-intentioned folks who sign up to fix a problem and then quickly lose interest. They spring to the rescue when projects are failing and casually brag about the inhumane number of hours they worked on a Saturday to get the work done and save the day.

Policy over humanity: Companies that put in place human resource managers whose sole purpose seems to be quoting policy numbers. "Help me, I have a human need" is countered with "According to policy requirement #123, I can’t help you."

Human-island mentality: There is a phenomenon we observed, particular to consulting. There was an unmistakable feeling that you were supposed to know/do everything solo. Whether it was something big, like a new business pitch, or something small, like booking travel, you were supposed to do it yourself. The fancy term is "self service." Great for some things, but culturally, it can produce nasty effects: People not talking to each other; No "knowledge sharing"; I can't help you – help yourself – attitudes; Headphones on all day.

Permanently broken things: The things around your space everyone accepts as broken until someone new shows up and questions it – the office doorbell with the sticker that instructs "please knock loudly," the chair in the kitchen labeled "no wheels" – the flickering light bulb above your desk that makes it feel like an interrogation room. Nothing says, "We don’t care about you," like an office that can double as a junk yard.

Reprinted from Broken: Navigating the Ups and Downs of the Circus Called Work by Nate Burgos and Stephanie Di Biase with author permission. Copyright (c) Nate Burgos, 2014.

Related post: Agency Life: How a Creative Office Space Impacts Creative Work