Three Proven Ways to Kill Your Culture (that you’re probably already doing)

That Amazon culture story just won’t quit. For management consultants, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. It will be spoken aboutmbcn384_hi for years, in the same hushed tones as the famous Netflix deck (remember “stunning colleagues”?). In the wake of last week’s LinkedIn post by Amazon VP Brad Porter about the company’s “magical” meetings (which brought to mind ducks on a pond – managers placidly gliding through their meetings while the team members paddle furiously beneath the surface, researching and fact-checking 6-page documents), I can’t stop thinking about well-intended culture killers.

The Amazon example, though shocking to some, isn’t all that surprising. Or unusual. Amazon may have taken reverse culture to a new level, but employers brainwashing, analyzing, categorizing, humiliating and jettisoning employees isn’t new. It’s common, to greater and lesser degrees, and the goal is always the same: Separate wheat from chaff and keep only an idealized workforce of top performers. (Never mind that this is not a functional model.)

Unfortunately, the most popular approaches to building this mythical workforce are also serious culture killers. Your company may not have gone all in on any of these, but it’s likely you’ve implemented a portion of at least one.

1. Adopting a “high performance culture”

“High performance culture” (HPC) is a term that makes me shudder. Picture high-strunSlide1g fast-talkers who are always ready to divide and defend within a culture that prizes individual achievement, values the stick over the carrot, and pits employees against each other in a competitive arena (aka “360 evaluations”). Those who survive are deemed “high performers.”

And that’s where these cultures get it wrong: They confuse stamina with performance. They think people who have the grit to stick it out and do what it takes (work on vacation, narc on coworkers) are “top performers.” Many, many companies strive for this, forgetting that man-to-man combat is an individual sport. Encouraging individual level competition gets you people with their eyes on a pretty small ball – that of their own achievement.

Stamina is not performance. It’s just…stamina. If you really want top performers who are focused on company and team success, you need to recognize and reward people who understand teamwork and who aspire to (and inspire) greatness by encouraging collaboration, ideas, and imagination.

Also, I’ve found that companies who want to adopt an HPC see it as a solution to an “LPC.” Yet you can’t fix a “low performing culture” by layering a rigid evaluative structure on top of it. You don’t fix a broken house by building a different house on top of it; you fix a broken house by fixing the broken house.

2. Implementing a Cult(ure) of Fear

Experience and history proves time and again that the fastest way to get people to follow the leader is through fear. And the best way to motivate through fear is by, yes, couching it in performance terms. You start by creating the conditions for increased “performance”:

  • You need a culture that “inspires” people to give more and more and more (more time, more energy, more brainpower)
  • You need a charismatic leader that people want to impress
  • You need to give people something to shoot for (the undefined best, biggest, most awesome, newest, yet-to-be-invented whatchamacallit), and you need to create myths and folklore around it
  • You need a mountaintop and you need to make it very hard to get to
  • And you need a culture that pits people against each other

Slide1 copyYou then antagonize and humiliate the people at the top so the stress runs downhill. And then you simply turn up the heat and watch people Darwinize themselves. (What you see will look a lot like the Amazon described in the Times piece.)

Here’s the thing: Fear is a great motivator. But it’s not a great innovator. I’ve never seen a team, tweaked to the nines, come up with a game-changing idea. It just doesn’t happen. This “last man standing” attitude doesn’t breed long-term creativity and innovation. People get tired of standing on the bodies of their fallen comrades – and then you get uncontrolled evolution, revolution, or a workforce that’s running as fast as it can in circles.

3. Worshipping at the altar of Busyness

There’s a Hyundai commercial running now that shows a cocky dude packing his bag at 6:01pm and walking out of an office while a voiceover intones, “Busy. It’s worn like a badge. Coming in early and staying really late. When did leaving work on time become an act of courage?” His coworkers eyeball his exit.

We’ve all been time-shamed like this. It’s pervasive in our culture to fetishize Busyness – every conversation is dominated bySlide1 copya overtures of how busy we are, how much we have to do, how little time we have. We use Busyness as explanation, defense and excuse, and as a way to diffuse the guilt (for being too busy or not busy enough!).

This guilt causes us – and our employers – to emphasize input over output. We measure value by hours invested vs. ideas generated. We glorify Busyness at the expense of business. People stay until 8, but they stop working long before then. And resentment fills the gap. (Anyone who has been cautioned about “time optics” knows this feeling.)

Of the three culture killers described, this can be the easiest to fix: Treat people like adults. Correct them based on actual performance failures, not on the fear of performance failures.

What can you do if you realize you’re killing your culture even as you try to bolster performance?

Understand that all three of these methods share a common core: Negativity. And you can’t fix a negative with a negative. Negativity is not a long-term play. It’s not attractive. And the talent you want is not interested in it. If you sincerely want to boost performance, set aside the stick. And try to understand the right array of carrots that will get you and your teams where you want to go.

Four Career Lessons I Learned from Video Games

Originally published on Fast Company, 8/10/15


I used to work for a video game company. Early in my tenure there, I heard a colleague remark that video games are the only form of entertainment where you get to write your own story and determine your own ending. I’ve since left the business, but that idea has stuck with me. Consider any video, phone, or tablet game you play: Your success rests on the series of discrete, split-second decisions you make. Most games offer hints and guides to help you make them, but the better a player you become, the fewer tips you need to do well.

Careers are similar. Starting out, you rely on a handful of mentors who critique your work, offer tips, and show you how to work the coffee machine. But as you leveled up, those helpers grow scarcer and you begin relying on your own expertise. What’s more, there are rules and a structure to every career path, and—as in video games—the better you understand them, the further you’ll advance. Here are four career lessons I’ve learned from video games.


Get comfortable with that idea. Much as you would starting out at the first level of a new video game, you have to figure out the strategies, conventions, and rules of your career universe. Every business or company has a way of doing things that reflects how the game is played within its industry. (For example, the way one advertising agency operates usually holds true across the advertising industry.) If you want to succeed in a given universe, you can’t bend it to your will. These conventions are tools to use, not limitations to resist.


The object of the game is to level up, but there’s more than one way to do that. You need to know how wide you can swing and still rack up points. How creative can you really be? Just how “outside-the-box” is “outside-the-box” at your company? (Tip: If they’re still using that phrase, the answer is probably “not very.”) You want to find creative ways to advance that aren’t so unconventional that you end up trying to play a different game than the one you’re in. Be crafty, but don’t wind up crafting your own demise.


Be honest and self-aware about your strengths, and surround yourself with people who can do what you can’t. Make strategic alliances with those who can help you as well as with those you can help. You need to move from one level to the next, but no one said you had to do it alone. Beware, though—you’ll encounter players who might seem helpful at first but turn out not to be. Do not engage them. Step to the side and continue on your way. There’s nothing to be gained from going head-to-head with non-helpers—some of whom might even play the victim as they drag you down.


In the corporate world it’s easy to feel diminutive or insignificant. Always remember that no matter how big the universe, the path through it is yours to blaze. It’s a story you’re writing as you go, and each decision—right or wrong, big or small—keeps you moving. Sometimes you’ll be a minor character, sometimes you’ll duke it out with an enemy or a stronger player, and sometimes you’ll just want to quit. But that’s just how gameplay works. Every challenge and obstacle is meant to make you a better player.

Bonus Easter Egg: If, at some point, you do find yourself with your back against a wall, bereft of weapons, gold, or magic, don’t be afraid. Quitting the game may be the decision that unlocks a hidden level, one that lets you keep leveling up—in the same game or a different one—with greater ease or satisfaction than you did in any level or universe before.

Photo: Flickr, Mikal Marquez

Has your team passed its Freshness date? Add infectious Fresh Talent

Another “aha” moment passed through social media this week (apologies to those for whom this is so last whenever). I love this!! It could1345051629422_8958051 have been posted by just about everyone I worked with in the first decade or two of my career: It’s early days as a consultant, 19-hum-hum, a collection of us recovering from an hours-long presentation, when out pops, “what would you do if you weren’t doing this?” I was amazed by how many people had Vermont B&B dreams. Not a single person said they were doing meaningful work they enjoyed doing, much less that they were in their dream job.

Flash forward to now and a group I call “Fresh Talent” – millennials, top talent, tech talent, and emerging talent. This group is changing the face of work by setting high expectations for what work has to offer and taking personal ownership of their work and experiences.

Despite a surround-sound of tough economies, job scarcity, and lack of opportunity, this group is largely immune to “reality.” Fresh Talent has a highly developed sense of self and are hyper-aware of their value. They want to be seen as individuals possessed of unique talents and abilities, and recognized not only for what they do contribute but also for what they might contribute. A good salary, benefits and perks are just the price of admission into their fabulousness – don’t waste their time with the offer, focus instead on the deal, specifically what you’re going to deliver in terms of opportunity, recognition and environment, to enable their greatness.

Oh, the sheer obnoxiousness of it all! Right? 

Not right. Razz at your peril, employers. Because these are the butterflies you want in your net. How many of your people are chuckling at the cartoon above? Are you chuckling at it? Fresh talent only seems obnoxious – as would anyone who asks for what they want and expects to get it seem to a person who is at effect of their career and not at cause. They actually have it right – people who believe in themselves and who are eager to share their brilliance with you, in exchange for opportunity, recognition and environment (and a decent package), are the people you want on your team. This kind of natural mojo can’t be taught – but it can be infectious. Bring in enough butterflies and you’ll start to see a difference in your organization.

experiencesThe key? The right net. Fresh Talent is looking for an amazing Employee Experience – the right combination of :

  • The opportunity to do great work and acquire new skills
  • Recognition for who they are, the skills they have, and the work they do
  • A great environment, the culture, workspace, and vibe of the organization.

If you can tell a great employment story – and back it up with an awesome employee experience – you’ll not only attract Fresh Talent, but infuse your organization with much needed energy, creativity, and possibility.

Full disclosure: I genuinely love what I do. I haven’t always loved the companies I’ve worked for, but the work itself – love it.






The Microsoft Letter

I would not try to defend the Microsoft layoff letter – it is a missed opportunity on many fronts – but I can empathize. I’ve written a number of these letters and they are always difficult.Slide1 It’s tough to balance the human interest with the corporate, HR, Legal and other interests that must inform the communication. When one goes as awfully wrong as this one did, commenters rage against the inhuman corporate entity and take aim, as ever, against The Man. Let’s assume though, that The Man is not the enemy; let’s assume The Man is misguided. A couple of thoughts….

  1. The foundation of any employment deal: When you cut right to the heart of it, the relationship between an employer and an employee is a financial agreement – I, the employee, will trade my time and skills for money. That’s it. That’s the agreement we all make (no matter how nicely decorated with perks and references to family-like teams). You were hired because your skills were needed. Come the day when your skills are not needed, you will be let go. (The flip side is also true, by the way – if you found a better deal elsewhere, you’d give notice, work your two weeks, and move on.)
  1. Humanity deserves humanity: As cold as the naked employment deal is, though, it is always clothed in human terms. Companies need to remember this and communicate to the tenor of the agreement, not just the fact, behaving with integrity when bringing people in and when letting them go.

Internal communications of this magnitude are always written with the expectation that they will become public (whether leaked to the media or posted to social networks). That’s why layoff communications are so difficult to compose and too often sound like they are written for an audience of more than just employees. They are. (It is interesting that Microsoft posted this letter directly to their external site.)

Slide2What happens – or at least what happened to me when writing these – is the desire to offer an explanation goes haywire. It feels like it’s not enough to say we acquired a company that will lead us in the direction we want to go, and as a result, we are eliminating positions/skills we no longer need. People always want to add more – more details on the new direction, more details on why this direction was chosen, more details on why the people in place are not the people to make the future happen, and so forth. And soon, what starts as a note to employees who are losing their jobs becomes a description of a future the audience will not be part of.

The Microsoft letter fell into this trap – far too many industry/company/future details and far too few what’s happening details. The authors of the Microsoft letter got lost in the Why. Why is always trouble because all paths through Why end at a “hope for the future” message. It’s unavoidable.

So instead of pursuing Why, I recommend focusing on What:

  • What’s happening
  • What it means (to the audience)
  • What happens next (to the audience)

What lets you exit gracefully. With humanity, the company’s and the employees’, intact.

In fairness, we don’t know what other communications were sent to Microsoft employees. There might be many and they may be great. What we do know is that Microsoft missed an opportunity with this initial communication to demonstrate leadership, empathy, concern and gratitude, conveying reassurance to the employees who will be leaving (vs. to shareholders that there is a way forward).

I do hope, though, that whatever communication(s) come next, the authors thank the employees who are leaving, the employees whose efforts made this next phase of growth possible.

The Reputation Equation

sex-and-the-city-post-it-noteNobody likes a break up. Popular culture has shown us over the years that there’s a right way and a wrong way to break up, e.g., never with a Post-it note.

This week the Internet served up two very different kinds of break ups, both involving employees. One, the cautionary tale that is the Comcast call, proves digital media can part your corporate kimono in ways you haven’t anticipated at a scale you haven’t imagined. The second, a farewell blog post from a former employee to Coca-Cola, is just plain classy.

Both demonstrate how Employees + Social Media = Reputation.

The Comcast call

Slide2The call is a rough go (if you haven’t listened, you can access it via NPR here). I’m guessing that Comcast hadn’t anticipated a customer recording and posting such a call. But when it happened (and the big bus of public opinion came barreling down), Comcast quickly issued an apology stating its embarrassment over the employee’s behavior adding that the behavior is “inconsistent” with training. Hm. I’ve broken up with too many service providers over the years to accept that this was simply an ambitious, caffeinated maverick. It’s easier for me to believe that the rep behaved this way because he was either trained or culturally influenced (or both) to behave this way. Tellingly, when the caller asserts that it’s none of the rep’s business why he wants to cancel his service, the rep responds that it is his business, that his business is “to know why customers are leaving.” Bingo – the training and the cultural norms of a culture that likely penalizes representatives for losing customers vs. rewarding them for keeping them.

I know this sounds like two ways to say the same thing, but it’s really not; it’s about energy and approach. One approach trains to the negative, the other to the positive; one drives conflict, the other, agreement. When an organization trains to the negative, employees become less focused on the customer and more focused on themselves. And once this happens…well, we’ve heard what happens – the employee will hang on for dear life trying to get his own needs met at the expense of the customer and the company’s reputation.

Customer facing employees are the frontlines of reputation and yet are too often very far down on the internal communications food chain. Training isn’t one and done, it’s an ongoing dialogue about values, goals, contributions and rewards. (Interestingly, the Comcast corporate values do not include an explicit customer-focused principle.) Separately, John Herrman writing on The Awl provides some interesting insights and empathy for the rep.

An emplSlide1oyee love letter

Poignant, poetic and not a little astonishing is this farewell note from a former Coca-Cola employee to Coke that expresses gratitude for their time together and captures highlights of what he learned on the job. All employers should strive to deliver such post-worthy employee experiences. Perhaps Coke would have preferred this employee’s tenure be longer than four years, but it clearly set the conditions for him to learn, grow, and stay, and if not stay, then fly.

More and more employees are curating their careers, purposefully choosing opportunities that add up to a unique whole. Employers that accept this evolution with grace and a spirit of generosity, and invest in their culture and opportunity, will earn employees like this one.

There is no more credible spokesperson for an organization than the employee. A note like this does more for a company’s reputation (and talent attraction efforts) than packaged content ever will.



Welcome to Corplandia

Corplandia.  That magical place where so many of us choose to spend our days. Occasionally doing something we love, often doing something we only sort of like, and too many times doing nothing we’re actually interested in.

Corplandia. A mythic place about which no person ever said, “I couldn’t wait to get here!!”

Corplandia. That shape-shifting destination, that pin-striped Eden, that too-oft taker of souls, do not brave it alone.

Take me along.