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Culture Inputs, Culture Outputs

Are you just lucky if you enjoy where you work?

With all the images of four leaf clovers and leprechauns that abound this month, it might be tempting to think that enjoying where you work is just for the lucky few. And you might assume that most of those lucky few are leaders and owners. For example, you’d think that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, enjoys where he works since he built the company. But did you know that wasn’t always the case?

Zappos was not Tony Hsieh’s first company. His first company success was with LinkExchange which he sold to Microsoft after a couple years of phenomenal growth. What’s interesting is why he sold it. According to Tony himself at a Stanford Executive Briefing on February 9, 2011, Tony sold the company because he didn’t like working there anymore; he didn’t like the culture. In his book “Delivering Happiness” Tony talks about not wanting to get out of bed in the morning and repeatedly hitting the snooze button on his alarm clock. When he started Zappos, he vowed to do it different so he would enjoy working at his own company (most of the time.)

The error in thinking it’s only a lucky few that get to enjoy working in a thriving workplace is that luck implies that the outcome is due to an uncontrollable force. Clearly with Tony’s experience, there are controllable elements. Here are a few principles for you to consider when evaluating your current and future workplaces:

  • Good varies – There is not a single type of “good” culture that creates an enjoyable and thriving environment. It’s not a checklist of things like barbecues, self-directed work teams and above industry pay. A “good” culture is one that fits the needs of the company, industry and employee. Similarly, “good” work and “good” behavior varies by country, company and family. It’s all in how we’re socialized. For example, in my family we take turns to talk and think people who interrupt are rude. In my friend’s family, if you don’t jump into the conversation and cut someone off you’re being rude by being uninterested and not paying attention. And even if the company culture is strong and clear, what is considered “good” work today can change drastically with a new manager, moving to a different department or changing to a new role. Being aware and expecting that “good” varies will help you adapt and overcome easier and faster.
  • Talk how – According to Stephen Hawking, “Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking and its greatest failures by not talking.” While I agree with Mr. Hawking, it is also important to talk about more than what needs to be done. Culture provides guidance for how things are done, but so many times real-life situations will pit what the company values against themselves. What’s important is to talk about those scenarios within the company to get a deeper and richer understanding of the desired behaviors. For example, good customer service means (among other things) being on-time and informatively answering customer questions. So what’s the right thing to do then if the current customer appointment is making you late for the next appointment because the customer you are with is asking so many questions? These real situations and how they were handled become the stories that are told at the proverbial water cooler and office parties that can have a long-lasting impact on the future behaviors and your enjoyment of the workplace.
  • Know yourself – This may seem obvious, but you have to know what you like. Take the time to understand what behaviors you personally value, what gets you excited and motivated, and understand your boundaries. Consider things like autonomy vs. manager oversight, personal development to be better at what you do versus learn to do something different, and the type of relationships you expect at work (all business and impersonal versus more friendly). With this in mind, you can decide whether adapting to what’s considered “good” will increase or decrease your enjoyment at work. For example, if you’re the type of person that enjoys continuously improving an existing product or process, you’ll be forever frustrated in an environment that is constantly creating something new and throwing out the old.

At the end of the day, good company culture is not just good luck. “Luck is not chance, it’s toil; fortune’s expensive smile is earned,” said Emily Dickinson. Culture is created by the daily actions of everyone in the environment. It takes an investment by the leaders and managers to create an environment that supports the goals and objectives of their specific business, as well as awareness and action by the employees to pick an environment that fits their values. Interestingly, this very analysis is happening real-time for the thousands of employees who work at Zappos, a company that has made company culture famous. On March 24, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh shared with employees a companywide memo stating that it would more aggressively pursue self-organization and is offering employees severance to quit, giving them until April 30 to opt in or out.

Seems that Tony is still working hard to create and sustain a thriving culture.


Kantola Productions (Producer). (2011). Happiness matters: How to create a culture for business to thrive [DVD].

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