It’s fair to say that workplace culture has finally come of age in the past year. Once a relatively niche concern of human resources teams, an engaged company culture is now a primary goal of forward-thinking business leaders as the Great Resignation, missteps in communicating layoffs, and quiet quitting have shown what can happen when leaders get culture wrong.
Yet, with the threat of a recession, and layoffs within the technology industry capturing headlines almost daily, I find it surprising that layoffs are hitting HR and DEI teams at a disproportionately high rate.
As a longtime chief people and culture officer who has just been through a tenure as acting CEO of a leading technology company, I’m worried that companies across every industry, particularly those that drive innovation at a fast pace like technology, are missing the vital importance of company culture.
Companies need generalists
Leaders with a background in HR have a broad view of the company, with touchpoints in every part of the organization. Many companies struggle with being too siloed, resulting in poor information flow and difficulties collaborating cross-functionally.
When we allow for the free flow of information and insights from the top down and bottom up, it leads to greater innovation capacity because the collective intelligence of the whole group is captured and every collaboration is made successful through effective internal communication.
People over numbers
Modern leaders are great at separating their desired outcomes from the road to get there–and then putting their focus on the latter. Traditional leaders care a lot about numbers, and rightfully so. But this is a rational–even dispassionate–analytical approach. Talking about numbers alone will not be enough to motivate the workforce.
My experiences have taught me to listen first and lead second–and to listen with the intent to truly understand. Employee surveys are not enough, especially when it comes to disparities in comfort around participating that follow generational, diverse, and gendered lines. Providing anonymous tools and multiple ways to engage can certainly help, but in any case, leaders must actively carve out time to really connect with employees no matter where they work or live. A positive culture empowers employees to feel safe and grow.
Research has found that high employee engagement results in high profitability. We know that an engaged workforce is more innovative and performs better. With high employee well-being and a rich work-life balance, companies can build the resilience necessary to navigate constant change in an uncertain world.
Understanding the culture’s hierarchy of needs
When faced with a culture deficit in their organization, some leaders immediately reach for a top-down approach. We saw this in the case of Apple where Tim Cook announced that the company expected staff to return to the office without first getting the buy-in of everyone. Cook drew on the historical culture of the company but failed to understand the needs and motivations of his present teams.
HR professionals bring a deeper understanding of the company culture hierarchy of needs. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we must address the basics first: our fundamental needs as human beings to feel important, have a high sense of autonomy, understand the impact we have on the world around us, and experience a sense of fairness when working as a part of a group.
Important decisions must be made in a collaborative and inclusive way, with the active contribution of employees. One concrete example would be how my organization made decisions on where to work, post-Covid. Through surveys, workshops, and company all-hands, we considered the collective needs and motivations of everyone at the company. We came to a solution that honored the need for autonomy as well as relatedness and togetherness, landing in a human-first approach where the office still plays a vital part in building our company culture, at a time when many tech companies went fully remote.
Giving work a meaning
In my nearly 20 years of experience, I have found that what motivates employees is a feeling that their work has an impact both within and beyond the organization–and that the impact is meaningful. A leader’s job is to help them unleash that inner motivation.
What motivates leaders will not always be the same as what motivates their teams. It’s too simple to chalk leadership up to maintaining revenue and profit. CEOs are motivated to keep those two things moving in a positive direction because everyone’s jobs and the health of the company depend on it. But for almost everyone else at the company, those concepts are too abstract and distant from their day-to-day tasks to give their work meaning. Best practices in HR encourage all to work their magic, and bring collaboration, learning, performance, well-being, and engagement to the workplace.
While every company has a culture of its own, a winning culture welcomes the right people whose personal values align with those of the company. When these values are reflected from the top down, it levels the playing field between leaders and employees, remote and in-person, and employees with a variety of work styles. To make values, culture, and branding align, one thing is clear–leaders must start by understanding their people
Anna Gullstrand is the former acting CEO and current chief people and culture officer at Mentimeter, a leading audience engagement platform. Anna is also the award-winning author of the book Facilitate!, HR Book of the Year in Sweden. In 2021, Mentimeter was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Startups based on employee growth, talent engagement, and applications. Mentimeter was awarded SaaS Company of the Year in Sweden in 2021.
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