Why You Shouldn’t Link Culture and Retention

Here are some vexing questions on culture: Why do people leave Google, Virgin and Zappos and take jobs elsewhere? Why, if 516216924 -- worker leavingthose companies are so focused on building exceptionally strong and compelling cultures, don’t people stay forever? Doesn’t it entirely contradict all the rhetoric about the power of culture if even the bellwethers of the corporate-culture surge can’t convince people to stay?

So poses Colin J. Browne — head of a Gauteng, South Africa-based culture, engagement and leadership think-tank firm called How to Build a Happy Sandpit — in a recent post on his company’s website. In his words,

“One of the greatest misunderstandings about culture is that it has some mystical power to lock people in to your organization for the long term. If you’re building it for that, you could be wasting your efforts … .”

On the contrary, he writes,

“[t]he answer lies in what I consider one of the most fundamental hallmarks of human nature: Familiarity breeds contempt. In a work sense, Happy Sandpit research [of 308 executives and business leaders over the past three years] shows that, within about 18 months, all employees slightly resent you for ever hiring them in the first place.

“It’s not that they don’t like their work, or their workplace, their colleagues or their bosses, it’s just that when we become used to things, we’re less inclined to see them as fresh and exciting and more inclined to overstate the irritations that surround us. And any workplace is full of irritations.”

In Browne’s estimation, given enough time and enough repetition of the tasks that make up [employees’ roles], the artifacts, strong values and general way of feeling while they are there begin to take a back seat to the day-to-day of their work. In that context, a new job offer bears the promise of reinvigoration, reinvention and a release from the things they’re bored with.

Since many more companies are awakening to the understanding that focusing on culture strengthens their employee-value proposition, the things you offer your employees may begin to lose their edginess, he says, adding that “you can get caught up in a vicious cycle if you react to that.” As he puts it,

“A far better goal for your culture efforts is to increase productivity, the voluntary sharing of talent, good will and skills, to iron out the rough spots that create barriers to team work and to develop a clear set of profiles for the people [who] you’ll have to hire to replace the ones [who] have left.

“Culture isn’t about retention. It’s about performance. Let that inform your decisions and you could save yourself from a world of pain.”

Not that we haven’t presented this premise in previous features and news analyses, but his way of articulating it caught a fresh eye so I gave it a fresh look.

I also contacted Browne to ask him specifically what HR practitioners and leaders should be doing to achieve that “far better goal.” His response:

“The one challenge shared by anyone who leads people in a discretionary environment [differentiated from a non-discretionary one, such as the military, where you are expected to follow orders fairly rigidly] is to convince people to volunteer their best efforts, loyalty and enthusiasm for the long term. You can’t lift them up by their feet and shake that stuff into their brains, so they have to choose to give it to you.

“Every culture conversation seems to be about how we make that happen, but I think we’re overlooking a couple of obvious things which keep hindering progress pretty much across the board:

  1. We don’t build jobs that support best efforts, loyalty and enthusiasm in the long term. You can come out of a design college and get a job at your dream digital-design company, be given the latest Mac computer and software to work on, in a great office, with exciting people and still feel like your job is boring within six months, because the projects you are working on and the clients you’re working with are, in fact, boring. Unless we’re building perfect jobs, therefore, which in an imperfect world with imperfect clients is impossible, people will find that they’ve had enough one day and go and find something else to do.

  2.  People are more loyal to their friends than they will ever be to a boss or a company. Ironically, the best reference for this is the behavior of soldiers in combat. While it’s often supposed that soldiers commit acts of great bravery for the grand notion of country, or unit or even God, the evidence suggests that, instead, they do it for the person next to them. When the order to retreat is given, they will blatantly ignore that order in order to rescue one of their colleagues. At the moments that matter, their loyalty is clear, and it’s not to ‘management’ or any sort of system. It’s to each other.”

I asked him to send me a specific, itemized list of the things HR should be doing or thinking about in light of his research. Here is that list:

  • You increase productivity when employees feel that they will let their colleagues down by slacking and care enough not to want to do that either because they’re emotionally invested or feel emotionally handcuffed. Either way, it works. This doesn’t happen overnight of course, but, by increasing the autonomy of individual teams — you can be as granular about this as you like, and I would encourage you to not be too broad — [so they can] make decisions on their own behalf [and] you make them more accountable for their results and actions, which then makes each individual member accountable to the others. You can’t be the one person who never pulls [his or her] weight in such an environment and expect to get anywhere. And to counter an obvious objection, if you find you have an entire team of slackers who merely cover each others’ backs instead of a productive team that cheers one another along, you change the challenge that they must meet and leave them to sort out the how. Raised expectations can have a very big impact.

  • They share talent, good will and skills voluntarily, because they’re sharing them with people they care about and whose success they link to their own. It doesn’t have to be altruistic; it just makes good sense as long as it is reciprocated and constant.

  • You iron out the barriers to teamwork by allowing them to decide how to work together. This goes to point one. Managers should care about the results and have a view about the way in which those results are achieved, but you’re unlikely to get the best out of people when you force them to stick to a rigid process that prevents them from developing their own flow. This may seem like voodoo to many organizations, which depend on processes to iron out the risk of defect, but those things are not mutually exclusive. You can have processes that must be adhered to, being followed by two teams with wildly different personalities, and get identical quality.

  • You create a clear set of profiles to replace those people by giving employees some say, or perhaps even all the say, about the people who join their team. They’re the ones who have to work with that new person and, unless you long to deal with employee friction, the manager’s view should be given less importance.

His list, he says, is a worthy goal of culture because it achieves the things you need it to: people giving their best efforts while they are with you.

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