A recent expose by The New York Times about the work culture at internet giant Amazon just shows what great leaders have always known: that without a thriving workplace culture, organisations suffer from inappropriate business practices, employee disengagement, uninspired products and services, and decreased financial performance. Whether the allegations made in The New York Times are true or not, what that article effectively highlights is that an important component of building a thriving culture - and improving the bottom line - is creating the conditions in which employee well-being can also thrive.
So what are the things that affect workplace culture? More importantly, how can a corporation make sure its culture fully supports organisational and employee well-being so that everyone wins?
Start from the beginning
Most business leaders say that the purveyors of corporate culture are its people; so the first step to building a great culture is getting great people. "Since people work for their managers, it is important for an organisation to put right people at the right place," says K Suryanarayana, HR head, Google India. "So for Google, it all begins with its hiring process." Gaurav Gupta, head of HR, decorative business and country, AkzoNobel India, says a great corporate culture seamlessly integrates goals of corporations with goals of individuals. "In the process of achieving goals, there have to be enough checks and balances to make sure that high performance does not lead to employee burnout. The key question to be asked is, is high performance leading to engagement. For example, in AkzoNobel India's case attrition rate from the western region is low, which is a proof of high level of employee engagement and further translates into high performance."
Most smart corporations don't see performance and employee well being as contradictions. DP Singh, vice-president and head, HR, IBM India, South Asia, says, "High performance has to be an outcome of working smartly, leveraging technologies and being passionate about your job. The trick lies in integrating work and personal life. Today's workforce is increasingly globally dispersed, multi-generational and multi-cultural. Effective management of any dynamic workforce requires an integrated and consistent approach to help drive innovation, collaboration, efficiency, retention, quality and cost savings."
Managers have an important role in engaging and inspiring the team to excel and deliver results. Recognising managers' role in providing inspiring leadership to the team, a majority of the organisations have put in place strong leadership and mentorship programmes. For instance, Google has both formal and informal mentoring programmes. Suryanarayana says that managers at Google are encouraged not to micro manage, rather they have to shoulder the responsibility of coaching people to succeed. Most importantly, the onus of mentoring people is not reserved for managers alone; it is open to everyone who possesses the skills to do so.
Similarly, Panasonic India has one-to-one coaching programmes that even cover regional managers where each regional manager is assigned a dedicated coach who mentors him.
At IBM, initiatives such as job-shadowing and mentoring help in both understanding the larger picture and also setting a roadmap for career growth for the young IBMers. Singh emphasises the importance of reverse mentoring. He says, "Reverse mentoring allows a team of handpicked young people to be part of a shadow board. As a part of this programme, a similar situation is given to the young employees and the senior leaders to analyse how differently they would deal with it. This programme helps bring out the innovative approach taken by the youngsters to solve a problem. It also aims to bring a better understanding between the top leaders and the young employees. Such multi-generational exposure is what sets IBM apart."
Internal practices, tools and policies play a vital role in promoting or hindering desired behaviours. In addition to focusing on developing future leadership, organisations are also acknowledging the importance of a fair and unbiased performance appraisal systems. Pramod Chandrasekhar, head HR, India, Middle East and Africa, Nokia Networks, says, "Last year, we replaced the traditional system of ranking where line managers ranked their teams. We did away with ratings and the bell curve-based performance appraisal system altogether because it was proving to be counterproductive. We have now put in place a more forward looking performance system that enhances employee performance and helps place the right people at the right position."
Savvy leaders look beyond yearly employee surveys to regularly gauge sentiments and enlist feedback during weekly chats or informal events. At the e-commerce company, Flipkart, feedback is informal, dynamic and spontaneous. Babu Vittal, senior director, HR, Flipkart, says, "The independence and sense of ownership provided at the company is unique. Our approach to employee interaction has never been boxed and restrictive. Flipkart doesn't like to dictate what employees need to do. Rather, it gives them the independence to work and prefers to involve them in key decisions." The management encourages crowdsourcing, from deciding on a holiday to the names of private labels to be launched by Flipkart. This helps in fostering a culture of belongingness.
Adarsh Mishra, head, HR, Panasonic India, says the organisation has introduced the concept of 'vibrant Panasonic' as part of which a culture team works closely with the engagement team in the areas of speed, decision-making, discipline and empathy. The KRAs of these culture innovators are to identify processes in their departments, which can be fast-tracked and bring in innovative ideas.
In sum, employees well-being is more likely to thrive when they have purposeful work and understand how their work contributes to the organisation's mission and purpose, and when they feel valued for what they bring to the table, not just for their ability to complete tasks.
Organisations with a strong culture are willing to give people time to settle in to their culture codes. Google's Suryanarayana believes that culture is not something that can be force-fitted into people. It takes time for people to settle in a new environment and eventually people gravitate towards a better culture."
It's not a quick process, but building a healthy culture means your organisation must recognise and address the 'people needs'.
The New York Times article on Amazon's workplace culture has generated all kinds of buzz. The stories are all over the map, from branding Amazon as an evil empire to describing its culture as one that's apropos for an challenging entrepreneurial trail-blazer. What are we to believe and what does this controversy say about the modern workplace?
First, I'm not surprised in the disparity of stories. As much as upper management may wish it were so, organisations rarely have a uniform culture. In truth, organisations are comprised of many subcultures.
From a relational perspective, there are three types of subcultures: control, indifference and connection. I define culture as the predominant attitudes, language and behaviours of a group. In the typical organisation about a quarter of the subcultures are subcultures of control in which people with power control and status rule over the rest. Some subcultures of control become abusive when managers go overboard. These subcultures explain the harshest stories we have read about Amazon, such as people weeping at their desks after being subjected to abusive put-downs in meetings.
In a subculture of indifference, people are so busy they don't take time to develop supportive relationships. As a result, individuals who work in subcultures of indifference typically feel unsupported, left out, or lonely, emotions that make them biologically vulnerable to anxiety, depression and ultimately, addiction. Roughly half of the subcultures in the average organisation are subcultures of indifference.
The best subcultures are 'connection subcultures.' In these, people feel connected to their colleagues, leaders, and clients and this makes them more enthusiastic, more energetic, more resilient, better thinkers and decision-makers, and more creative
The CEO's blind spot
If I were to advise Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, I would tell him I'm not surprised that he doesn't recognise the awful subcultures described in the Times' article. That's typical with CEOs. People put on a happy face when the boss is around. Because of a reluctance to be forthcoming in person, employee engagement surveys are a necessity to provide accountability and hold the managers of subcultures responsible. And the results must be acted upon or people will stop taking the time to honestly answer the survey or they will stop participating altogether.
In addition to helping Bezos see the disparity between what he personally experiences and the reality for those at other levels or other departments, I would show him the research on how subcultures of connection improve organisational results and how subcultures of control and indifference sabotage organisational performance. I would challenge him to assess the subcultures throughout Amazon and compare them in terms of performance metrics. If he did this he would come to the same conclusion Google did in their Project Oxygen Research: managers who connect with the people they lead are the most effective.
Bottom line, I'd tell Bezos that he needs to become more intentional about influencing the subcultures throughout Amazon. Absent intentionality, subcultures drift toward indifference to people. This natural drift is why large organisations tend to become machine-like and lose the sense of community that made people care and pull together to overcome the obstacles and times of adversity they faced as the company grew. Perhaps this is partly why the average Fortune 500 corporation survives for less than 50 years.
President & co-founder, E Pluribus Partners