One hundred thousand years ago, it is believed that at least six human species inhabited the earth. Six different types of humans. About 70,000 years ago, along our path to dominance, Homo sapiens (we are the only sapiens left) formed elaborate structures called cultures. Some researchers think it has something to do with why our species prevailed.
Professor Yuval Noah Harari explains that cultures have formed based on three key species differentiators: our unique ability to cooperate with each other in large numbers, our ability to speak, and our exclusive belief in myths – things we have never experienced with our senses but trust nonetheless.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the culture, how it started and where it’s going. It is the corporate culture that I am thinking about today. As “flexwork” competes with tenure, leaders are looking for ways to strengthen their work culture.
Before the pandemic, there were only 5 million teleworkers. This number has skyrocketed to 60 million in 2020 and is expected to continue hovering around 40 million for the foreseeable future. Flexible, hybrid and remote working is here to stay.
Now couple this flexible movement with the broad discontent that drove 33 million people out of their jobs recently, and leaders have an unprecedented chance to remake the culture.
Much like the habits that shaped cultures 70,000 years ago, we can think of workplace culture as a common set of underlying behaviors and mindsets that shape the way people interact. And you can’t talk about culture without talking about leadership. Leader behaviors and mindsets are what create a predisposition for people in large groups to behave in a certain way.
Last month, the MIT Sloan School of Management released the top predictors of attrition during the big quit. Leading the rankings at No. 1: toxic corporate culture.
“A toxic corporate culture is by far the best predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover,” researchers quote.
This occurs when the observable behaviors of leaders no longer match the needs and/or beliefs of workers, causing humans to leave and find a new culture (and a new leader) that is more beneficial, more harmonious, more catalytic for their survival.
If you want to strengthen your culture, but your people are now farther from the warmth of the proverbial campfire, consider these evolution-inspired questions:
◗ Why are you paying for your office?
The office is the new off-site. The days of showing up for fun are over. How will you strategically leverage the space to foster cooperation, collaboration, and innovation? Historically, office spaces enabled systems. But people enable productivity. When leaders evolve the systems that foster our inherent willingness to cooperate and collaborate, cultures also improve. Clarify expectations in the new system and leverage in-person time with intention.
◗ Describe your leaders out loud. Did you use adjectives or verbs?
This language matters. Leadership, in the context of an organization, is a professional function: This is an intentional practice of engaging others to achieve the best results. We reinforce workplace cultures through actions, clearly observable behaviors. When we list a set of qualities that a leader must to be– as respectful, courageous or self-aware – we rely on our own subjective (often conflicting) definitions of these words.
Instead, identify observable behaviors that leaders need to display. Verbs, not adjectives. Here are some examples: listens carefully, provides timely feedback, encourages diversity of thought. As managers move on to lead more remote teams, they will be the windows through which remote employees experience your entire culture. Are your leaders aligned and equipped to display these behaviors? Developing them will be your most direct culture improvement strategy.
◗ Are your employees connecting to your purpose?
“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether it is a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination,” Harari writes. Two people who have never met can nevertheless spend time working side by side, raising funds and building a school in a developing country because they share the belief that education is the door to freedom.
Our species is organized around our beliefs. Workplace culture is fertile ground for exerting synergies in value systems. Include questions about values alignment in your hiring practices. And create a clear line of sight for team members to connect their daily tasks to their larger purpose.
Humans aren’t very powerful creatures, it’s true. We would lose every round in the ring with a chimpanzee. But you could never convince a chimp to give you a banana just by describing, on Zoom, the behaviors that would earn him unlimited bananas. All healthy cultures are guided by a leader’s effectiveness in harnessing our species’ true source of power: our cooperative intelligence.•
Haskett is a leadership consultant at Advisa, a Carmel-based leadership consultancy.