Men in suits stuck with their heads in cardboard boxes - culture at work - How to Be Good at Work

7. Culture
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Sheryl Sandberg

As we explore How to be Good at Work, we have made several references to the culture of fear that many people experience at work. This culture turns us from caring, compassionate human beings into compliant robots who believe that doing the right thing is simply to follow orders.

It took me a few years to realise that this culture of fear pervaded almost every organisation I worked with. When called in to advise senior leaders about how to make right something that’s gone badly wrong, it became clear to me that bad things happen because of our cage of rules, regulations and processes. The very systems that had been designed to stop them happen in the first place. I also began to realise that this straightjacket of regulation was destroying the very creativity essential for us to achieve a good and prosperous life. This is most true of the ‘target culture’ operating in both the private and public sectors.

“Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas culture has invented a single mould to which all must conform. It is grotesque. ”

U.G. Krishnamurti

“No culture on earth is as heavily narcotized as the industrial West in terms of being inured to the consequences of maladaptive behavior. We pursue a business-as-usual attitude in a surreal atmosphere of mounting crises and irreconcilable contradictions.”

Terence McKenna 

“You must make the numbers, or else.” is Rule #1 many of us feel we need to comply with.

Culture at work is often poorly defined. “It’s what you do when no one is looking” is a definition I’ve heard from several senior leaders who should know better. The dictionary is much more helpful. Culture is “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. We can apply this definition equally to all of humanity: to a religion, a nation-state, a town or workplace. This definition also helps us to understand that culture is a philosophical, psychological, social, economic and political thing. In other words, to understand the culture of a group, we need to understand its ideas, emotions, relationships, tasks and power structure.

Most of us are fortunate enough to live in cultures that are more-or-less liberal, social democracies. We are equal in the eyes of the law and we all have a vote in who gets to lead us. But, when we come to work this reality changes. Unless we are part of a workers’ co-operative or partnership, we do not get to elect our leaders. We do not have a vote. And we are rarely treated equally. The social, political and economic culture we experience at work is more like a medieval monarchy where power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a narrow, aristocratic elite. So, whilst we aspire to live in an egalitarian eco-system, we actually work in a hierarchical ego-system.

The good news is that there are a growing number of business people who understand that a safe and open human culture is not only sustainable, it is essential for prosperity. When we look at a business like Google, how do we explain its growth from nothing to a US$650bn business in just 20 years? On the surface, Google looks like a business built on the predictability of digital, binary thinking. But underneath the surface, Google’s leaders have understood the difference between a finely engineered product and the complexity of humans. We are collaborative as well as competitive. We are imaginative and creative. We make mistakes and learn from them. We are an adaptive species. In evolutionary terms, species that thrive in a changing environment are those that adapt and collaborate.

In 2015, Google published a short paper Five Keys to a Successful Google Team that explained the qualities of its best performing teams. These qualities are psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact of work. This is very different from the controlling, fear-driven cultures experienced in most organisations. Perhaps this explains one of the fundamental reasons for Google’s success and the slow extinction of older more hierarchical businesses and bureaucracies? The other insight Google reports is that it’s all about the team, not about any individual superstar geek.

Primed to Perform was also published in 2015 by former McKinsey consultants, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor. In this book they explain three direct, positive motivators and three indirect, negative motivators. I have alliterated a couple of these so that we have three ‘P’ words in each column. They are:

Direct Positive Motivators




Indirect Negative Motivators




“Build a culture that rewards—not punishes—people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved.”

Ben Horowitz

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Sheryl Sandberg

The vast majority of executives I work with say that the indirect, negative motivators dominate their thinking, their leadership style, their performance management systems and their culture.

Now, ask yourself which of the three direct, positive motivators is the one that generates the highest performance? Most people say Purpose but in fact, Doshi and McGregor show that it is Play!

So, where’s the connection between Google’s “psychological safety” and “play”? Well, its simple, isn’t it? In order to play, we need to feel safe. Play is all about exploration, imagination, creativity and collaboration. This is how we learn as young children, but then our really badly designed education and workplace systems turn us into anxious, compliant robots. Our purpose in life is to succumb to pressure by acquiring status and stuff through prestige and pay. Not only do we stop playing, we also stifle our potential and lose sight of a higher purpose.

I hope you are now convinced that culture at work needs to evolve rapidly to reflect the ideals of the safe, liberal, social democracies that we have fought so hard to create and defend. In our next episode we will explore how culture is experienced and shaped by every leader and every team, so that we are at our best, more and more of the time. Just as our families and friends are the focus for our personal lives, so the culture we experience at work is the character of our teams and of our team leaders.

Boys enjoying a waterfall together - Culture - How to Be Good at Work

As well as drawing my own conclusions I read and research many papers, books, articles and essays on how we, as humans, go about our business. Discover a selection and read on within More Good Thinking.