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The Secret to an Ideal Work Culture

7 minute read
Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor are the authors of Primed to Perform.

What’s the secret sauce to an enviable workplace culture? About 90% of business leaders believe that culture is their first or second most critical asset, but many admit to not knowing how to build a high-performing one in a systematic and sustainable way. Our new research provides an answer: Performance is fundamentally driven by our motives.

When we work for reasons related to the work itself, we are more adaptive. In our experience, adaptability is the trait most cited by managers as characteristic of high performers. The farther our reasons are from the work, the less we exhibit the trait.

A company’s culture is what activates those motives, for example telling us whether to make a PowerPoint presentation for the love of it or for the promise of a reward. Rewards, values and leadership are all part of culture, but so, too, is the entire set of systems that people encounter upon joining an organization, including job design, identity, performance management and compensation.

Here are five adaptive companies that intuitively understand how to motivate their employees using the right reasons. We know some of these companies personally and others are new discoveries, but anecdotal evidence hints that certain aspects of all of their cultures enhance their employees’ play, purpose and potential, while minimizing emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia.

1. Movement Mortgage

If you wanted to empower a disadvantaged community and ignite a larger movement to change the world, few people would opt to start a mortgage company. But that’s what NFL-tight-end-turned-CEO Casey Crawford and his colleagues at Movement Mortgage are doing.

After years playing in a stadium that bordered one of the lowest performing schools in the country, Casey wanted to elevate communities and decided that capital and education were the best ways to do that. Seven years and more than 2,500 employees later, the mission is alive and well with $8 billion in loans originated and a recently filed application for own charter school.

It’s not enough to affix your mission and values to mouse pads around the office. To truly motivate people, your mission must be connected to the work you do, and the whole organization must live it—in how leadership treats the company, how managers treat teams and how everyone treats the customer. The deep sense of purpose facilitated by Movement’s clear, consistent identity translates into real performance gains—none of which comes at the cost of integrity. One loan officer went as far as to suggest the company pay back a customer’s mortgage when her husband died, and it did.

2. Shape Security

Generic values do little to help people make the right decision in most situations, never mind the tough ones. That was the puzzle Shape Security, a tech startup aiming to “protect every website in the world,” set out to solve when it found itself swamped with work and in desperate need of more people. Leaders created a “Culture Club,” which through rigorous debate and reflection, decided, among a few other pithy directives, that we value hiring superstars more than filling positions.

When Shape had to choose between using a suboptimal design for their platform or taking the time to redesign it (at the risk of angering both clients and investors), the code came swiftly to the rescue: We value the benefits of re-deriving processes more than the expediency of repeating best practices.

By succinctly defining broad but actionable rules of the playground, Shape enables its employees to experiment freely without constantly checking in with supervisors. Experimentation is the natural process of learning and self-improvement that allows us to find play in the work itself, the most powerful motive.

3. Atlassian

Performance-based bonuses, which reward those creating the most value with a larger share of that value, make theoretical sense. Unfortunately, it’s often a different story in practice, with relevant metrics based on factors people have little-to-no control over and a once-yearly gauntlet of assessments that ratchet up emotional and economic pressure. Atlassian, an organization that “seeks to unleash the potential of teams through technology,” observed the ineffectiveness of their traditional performance review process and self corrected.

The company recognizes that feedback is an important tool of play, allowing people to collect self-improvement ideas, and so should be diverse, regular and uncomplicated by concerns about bonuses. To that end, its People Team designed and enables three types of feedback: employees collect feedback from those they have worked with; they meet with managers for constant discussions and one simplified yearly session framed as a two-way discussion; and they complete a 10-question leader survey assessing their manager.

Bonuses are linked to company performance, and money is positioned as acknowledgement of work well done rather than motivation for it.

4. Medallia

Recognizing that the new-employee “onboarding” process can feel impersonal, Medallia, a company building software to help companies measure and improve customer experience, designed a high total motivation entry process that decreases emotional pressure and creates play.

New team members receive a welcome letter from the founders, a Kindle to “grow” their minds, and a FitBit to “grow” in health and wellness. The company then asks the newbies to do something to make Medallia a better place, and to push the boundaries of their growth comfort zones.

In a matter of days, Medallia’s onboarding ceremony breaks down walls it takes others months or even years to scale. In so doing, it creates a solid sense of trust and community that drives the collaborative spirit responsible for so much of their innovation.

5. Birchbox

Human Resources has traditionally been treated as an administrative function, but in our more competitive and rapidly changing world, people management teams need a more strategic role to ensure adaptability.

With 250 employees, presence in international markets, and digital and brick-and-mortar offerings, Birchbox’s leadership understands this imperative, and has empowered its People & Culture team with the mandate to proactively design and manage people’s development, performance and overall experience.

Unlike traditionally siloed HR processes, the team centrally manages the end-to-end experience. This allows them ensure employees receive a consistent mission across the organization. Most important, they constantly measure the strength of the company’s culture through not just regular conversations with employees, but also quantitative surveys: two major ones each year with shorter bi-monthly “pulse checks.” The resulting data enables them to strategically guide, not just teams, but also the CEO on how best to align the right people and skills to the right initiatives.

Our motives are the secret sauce to high performance, not rock-climbing walls or bottomless popcorn in the office. Too great a focus on rewards, praise and punishment can distract people from doing their best work. To inspire the most problem-solving and innovation, a workplace culture must enable people to see the impact of their job, work toward a future goal, and most importantly, enjoy the work itself.

Doshi and McGregor are co-authors of Primed to Perform, a book about the counterintuitive science behind high-performing cultures being published Oct. 6 through Harper Collins. They are also co-founders of Vega Factor, a company building technology to help organizations of all sizes and across sectors create high-performing cultures. Between their almost 20 years of professional experience, they have worked as tech entrepreneurs, McKinsey & Company consultants, a substitute school teacher, an employee of Fortune 500 companies, and a married couple. They received their MBAs from Wharton and HBS respectively.

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