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It’s Not All About the Benjamins

Posted by David A. Couper, MA on October 08, 2015 9:30 AM

quiet

Take a gregarious and loud man to church, and he will suddenly grow silent as he takes his seat. What tells him to do this? Culture.

Strong cultures dictate our habits, actions and beliefs. Weak cultures allow chaos to thrive.

These are a few of the lessons I took away from a recent presentation by Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky, who is widely known as Dr. Gustavo.

In his highly readable book, Culture Trumps Everything, Dr. Gustavo argues that culture tells us which behaviors are acceptable, and which are forbidden. Culture is what says: that behavior may be okay in the world at large, but it is most definitely not acceptable within our organization.

One of the most interesting aspect of Dr. Gustavo’s observations is the tension between social norms and business norms with regards to a company’s culture. Social norms are behaviors such as helping another person carry a heavy load up the stairs, or waiting politely until a receptionist greets the guests who arrived before you. Business norms include working in return for money, or recognizing that you have to work at your firm for two years before you can be promoted.

When social and business norms conflict, business norms prevail. When this happens, outcomes tends to be poor. The more talk there is of money, the less likely people are to help each other. “People work harder for cause than cash,” says Dr. Gustavo.

Many companies assume the opposite - that employees work for money - and thus the best way to motivate them is to use cash. In many cases, that’s dead wrong.

How does this relate to culture? If you make your culture all about money, you will have a hard time fostering teamwork and collaboration. But if you make room in your culture for social norms - be kind, help others, show respect - you won’t need money to motivate positive behaviors. No one pays you to give up your seat to an elderly person, you just do it because it is the right thing to do.

Organizational cultures shouldn’t trump social norms; they should embrace them in genuine and substantive ways. This is how you foster collaboration, teamwork and even innovation. This is how you bring out the best in people.

By offering a wide range of free benefits to its employees - free gourmet food and dry cleaning and other services that make their personal lives easier - Google deliberately brings social norms into their business culture.

Dr. Gustavo quotes Larry Page, Google co-founder, who said, “If you make the world a radically better place, money will find you in a fair, balanced, and elegant way.”

Don’t start with the money. Start with social norms and stick with them. Build genuine relationships with employees and customers. It may sound like a paradox, but the more you are able to take money off the table, the faster your company will grow.

One word of caution: don’t get stuck in the middle. A management team that cares mainly about cash can’t be convincing in claiming that they want to “help others” or be “customer-focused”. Such leaders will sound insincere at best, and untrustworthy at worst.

Image: STML/Flickr

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