Culture & the Cringe Gulls

Reflections on the importance of authenticity, consistency, and resilience to a company’s culture

Company culture can be a bit of an ick concept, especially for anyone who remembers the time when we didn’t talk about our feelings (or even expect to be happy at work). And feelings and culture don’t ‘not exist’ if they aren’t acknowledged. Today it’s more widely understood that invisible concepts that go ignored normally go bad. Perhaps not always full throttle maggoty but definitely a bit funky and sour.

Back in October, I attended a Workspace Event where a panel of business representatives discussed company culture and the ways it disseminates throughout a business to permeate customer consciousness or the client experience. Everyone agreed that a healthy culture was important for success, but the panel was less single minded about what constitutes cultural health or how to achieve it without spending too much money or trying too hard (a serious cringe crime in the UK).

At its simplest, company culture is about looking after people and making them happy so that everyone has a more enjoyable work life and feels more motivated to put in a worthy effort and collaborate better. The capitalist justification being raised output and higher staff retention. What’s so cringy about that?

The cringe comes from when company culture is forced, inauthentic, and not based in reality but instead in some kind of corporate fluff world.  We’re not trying to create some kind of Silicon Valley cult. Starting a new job shouldn’t feel like entering a witness protection program where you don’t get to see your old friends again and are forced to adopt a new nickname.  But equally, company culture shouldn’t be so weak it is undetectable because a company without a sense of its values and with no discernible personality is a sad place where nobody learns your name and people step out on their lunch break and are never seen again. 

When a company is small in employee number it is easy to create and maintain a culture organically through the personalities of the founding team members, but when the company grows, a more deliberate approach might be necessary.  That is when it’s important to nail some values down. And the cringe gulls begin to assemble in the skies at this juncture, because this is when things can get naff. At See, we ran an internal workshop to identify what made us feel special as a group, what characteristics we thought would be essential for us to retain to stay ‘See’ as we grew. We arrived at dedication, communality (yes, a real word), and positivity.  Because they are home grown, they are credible and ownable. The cringe gulls didn’t even get a chip.

Who wants to follow the leader
who yells you unconscious?

Not even when we printed them out and stuck them on the office wall like we were making a mockumentary about a London ad agency. But are we living those values? I think so but the quest will always be to deepen this intention. They are on the wall not to act as a self-awarded certificate, but more to inspire us to be our best self, to remember what we collectively have signed up to. We know we need to hire against these values, train against them, reward against them- embed them into our client servicing systems as well as our employee review processes. They must have multi-dimensional application to be ‘real’.

The values are sort of like the company standard; the flag we rally around and need to protect. Threats to our company culture can come from clients we work for that have ‘conflicting’ actual lived values, (irrespective of what is written on their office wall).    At the Workspace Event, one contributor described how ‘retiring’ a ‘dickhead client’ because they didn’t share the company values was a great feeling. No doubt. Not sure if we feel at economic liberty to enforce a similar ‘dickhead’ filter, (although we do try to screen for Prime Evil). So instead, we bolster our own culture so that it forms a sea wall resilient enough to withstand the tidal surges of toxicity that might come from distant shores.

Other threats to culture are bad hires, particularly at mid or senior level where individuals have sufficient influence to create cultural microclimates. I once experienced a very bad company culture in an organisation where a very senior director shouted so forcefully at the person responsible for IT that he fainted. The culture of that company was altogether unpleasant. On the flipside, I have also worked for a company that, although bland in itself, had a senior leader who brought joy and energy into the room every day and it made everyone glad to be there and want to do a good job.  With leadership comes power and with power comes responsibility to create an altogether good vibe. Who wants to follow the leader who yells you unconscious?

Admittedly, values can turn on you in a maggoty way if you aren’t looking after them properly. They need tending. For us at See that means making sure that ‘dedication’, does not translate as burning out, that ‘communality’ leaves room for individual expression and achievement, that ‘positivity’ doesn’t eclipse the less cheerful human emotions that are essential components to a life lived in technicolour.  Disappointment is still allowed and kicking the shredder remains a valid expression of frustration.

As anyone who has worked in a market research agency knows, it isn’t all giggling over a plate of biscuits in the Holiday Inn. It can be hard work, long hours, and high stakes. Company culture gives us a vehicle for kindness. At See we have been running an optional wellbeing scheme called See’s Wellbeing Initiative Grant (SWIG). Every employee is annually entitled to £450 to invest in something that feeds the soul. And so far, there’s been huge variation in the dietary requirement of our souls. SWIG has covered personal training sessions, ceramic classes, a cinema membership, art gallery entry fees, the purchase of a paddle board, and a hefty amount of yoga. It’s been successful because it is subjective and nonprescriptive. Not just a lump of cash, it carries a sincere message that taking time for peace and rejuvenation is important.

It’s difficult to know what budget to put behind company culture. The cringe gulls sense an opportunity when too much is invested in Forced Fun. Team bonding events are like romantic gestures – cheap and considered trumps extravagant and vacuous, (asterisk: considered and extravagant is also acceptable).  A round in a pub, a picnic in a park, a group walk across the city, all provide time and space for conversation and connection.  And if your company culture evolves around being rewarded in a style usually reserved for OxyContin reps, you have to consider what is actually going on in the accounting department of that company… especially if Companies House has it listed as a market research agency.

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