Expert Advice for Medium and Midsize Businesses

How Culture Can Unify—or Divide—Your Workforce

Jason Richmond
Chief Culture Officer and Founder at Ideal Outcomes
Culture, or the shared experiences, beliefs and values that make each organization unique, has the power to unify people around a common purpose, or divide individuals in a way that undermines it. Culture provides a sense of belonging that supports your organization’s mission. When a unifying culture is missing, the resulting conflict can take a heavy toll on the organization, its customers, and its partners.

If your organization is seeking to bring your people together in the pursuit of purpose, the right culture is the key. Here’s how—and why—culture can unify or divide your workforce.

Your Culture Reflects Your Company’s Journey

As they grow, companies journey along a fairly predictable trajectory of culture. They begin as startups, noted for their scrappy, make-it-happen cultures. Startups are exemplified by the entrepreneurial mindset: a sense that each individual is an important part of the team, empowered and trusted to get whatever needs to get done—done.

Startup cultures are non-hierarchical, focused on execution (rather than process), and defined by relationships and teamwork rather than rank and roles. Individuals who are comfortable wearing different hats—generalists rather than specialists—are attracted to startups. They are allowed (encouraged, even) to take risks and try new roles to meet the needs of the organization. “Failing forward” is a hallmark of startup culture.

As organizations grow they have more to risk than startups. That’s reflected in the development of hierarchies, which can deliver more consistency and managerial control over outcomes but can detract from the sense of belonging and shared destiny. Process, rather than execution, gains ground as people begin to specialize in particular roles.

In this environment, unity suffers unless a conscious effort is made to maintain a sense of teamwork and ownership. As people specialize, they tend to interact less with others outside their immediate work group. Hiring changes also impact culture as hiring decisions are increasingly made based on a person’s specific skills or departmental fit—to the detriment of cultural fit within the larger organization and individual growth potential.

Silos—of information and of culture—begin to form at this point. Departments (and the people within) starting having less and less in common with each other aside from the logo on their business card. When this happens, teamwork and trust are usually replaced by empire building, power struggles between departments, and micromanagement by managers and executives. All of these can hamper growth and create a less than happy workplace.

These changes can be particularly hard on employees who have stayed with the company as it changes. Entrepreneurial individuals may find themselves stifled in a workplace that now values structure, whereas a more process-oriented new hires, who might have struggled in the start-up, are drawn to the opportunities. As these different personalities clash, we begin to understand why Gallup polls found that 85 percent of workers are disengaged at work.

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How Culture Unifies your Workforce

Culture is about what’s shared, and therein lies its power to unite or divide your organization. So how exactly does culture unify? The answer lies in what culture is. Culture is a powerful combination of:

  • What you do (mission),
  • Why you do what you do (values, beliefs, relationships and purpose)
  • How you do what you do (roles, trust, habits, processes, etc.)

In order for a culture to unify, these three elements must be in place. There’s disagreement as to which element is most important, but they actually go hand-in-hand. You can’t succeed at your “what” (mission) unless your people are aligned around a “why” and a “how.” To engage with purpose, people need a reason to care and a way to get the job done—although the exact details might differ from person to person.

Alignment of what, why, and how can crumble the silos that are so problematic as companies grow. These challenges include things like generational differences, differences in beliefs/backgrounds, and interdepartmental rivalries.

An Example

To see how culture can act to unify or divide a company, let’s take a look at how culture impacts one of the major shifts taking place in American companies: the rise of the millennial worker.

Millennials recently surpassed Generation X as the largest cohort in the American workplace. They make up more than 34 percent of the workforce. Millennials have proven to be a tough nut to crack for many employers, who denigrate them as “job hoppers,” “culture consumers” and worse. These labels exist because of a disconnect between how this generation expresses its values and how other generations express (in many cases) those same values.

Perhaps the generation with whom they experience the most conflict is the one to whom they are nearest in age. Generation X and millennials have much in common; both generations want to be valued and recognized for their success. Both dislike bureaucracy and hierarchical power structures. But there are some important differences in how they attempt to meet those needs.

Gen Xers were the original “latchkey kids,” raised to value individualism and a DIY approach, rather than cooperation and teamwork. As a comparatively small demographic (one not touted as taking over the world), they learned to work within hierarchies. They are very much a “make lemonade out of lemons” generation that seeks kudos for their ingenuity and hard work.

Millennials, on the other hand, seek to change hierarchies or—if they can’t— to leave them. Eighty percent of millennials report being disengaged. This could simply be a manifestation of their youth; all generations go through rebellious, aimless periods (Woodstock, anyone?).  Less enamored of the DIY approach, they want their employers to recognize them and to invest in their success with resources and opportunity. Not getting these needs met will cause them to disengage with an organization.

Generational differences like these have the potential to unite or divide, creating a business challenge for organizations that hope to hire the best and brightest and maintain a harmonious workplace. When a culture is able to unite people common values (no matter how they are manifested), there are fewer potential areas of conflict.

If your organization has overcome the plateau effect, we want to hear from you! We’re looking for contributors for a new book “Beyond the Plateau Effect.” If you can answer the question, “What role does culture play in your success?” visit our website to share your story. We would love to hear from you.

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