The following is a conversation between Dr. Jessica Kriegel, Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Dr. Jessica Kriegel is the Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture for Culture Partners, leading research and strategy in best practices for driving results through culture. For over 15 years, Jessica has been guiding global, national, Fortune 100, and other organizations on the path to creating intentional cultures that accelerate performance.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jessica.
Jessica: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Denver: Considering the rapid evolution of workplaces, especially since the pandemic, what are some of the key shifts you’ve noticed in organizational culture?
Jessica: Well, I mean, there’s organizational culture, and then there’s what people perceive to be organizational culture. Some of the most rapid shifts post-pandemic have to do with hybrid work environments and people going into their homes or back into the office, and where are we working from. And that feels like it’s culture-related, and I get a lot of questions around how to manage that.
There are many leaders who think that they’re, quote, “ losing their culture,” because people are working from home. That’s not how we think about culture. We think of culture as the way that people think and act to get results. And we think and act to get results at home, and we do that in the office as well. And we think there are ways to intentionally shape culture, whether you’re in the office or not.
I think what is probably more salient to culture is there seems to be an increase in the anti-work movement… where employees are feeling like they are not cared for by their employers; that led to such things like the Great Resignation. It’s leading to increased unionization that you’re seeing across the board, and more vocal dissension on social media about corporations generally, and the way that people feel like they’re being treated.
And that certainly is a culture phenomenon because it’s the way that people think and act to get results that’s being affected there. When you have employees feeling like they’re not cared for, they stop caring about the business or their employer, and it can have detrimental effects on results.
“The leaders who are really driving results in a sustained way and an impactful way are those that go beneath the action trap and ask themselves, ‘What beliefs do my employees need to hold in order to take that action proactively?’ They’re really thinking about the mindset of employees.”
Denver: Yeah, great point. It did seem after the pandemic hit that employees felt that they were cared for more, but recently it looks like they feel like they were cared for less than before the pandemic started. So it’s gone completely back to the baseline and then even below that.
What do organizations need to do to take that into account and to make their people not feel cared for, but really to care for them?
Jessica: Yeah, that’s a great question. We base all of the work we do on a very simple framework that is fundamental to all organizations, and it’s called the results pyramid. It starts with results, which is really what every organization wants to do, nonprofits included. There are results that you need to achieve as leaders of an organization that you want the entire team to rally behind.
Well, the thing that you have to ask yourself is, “What action would my employees need to take in order for us collectively to achieve those results?” And that is where most leaders stop. They get stuck in the action trap where they go back and forth between what they want to achieve and what they need people to do, what we want to achieve, what we need people to do.
And you just kind of get stuck there; that leads to burnout. It leads to micromanagement and just overload, right? The leaders who are really driving results in a sustained way and an impactful way are those that go beneath the action trap and ask themselves, “What beliefs do my employees need to hold in order to take that action proactively?” They’re really thinking about the mindset of employees.
Everyone worries about how people act to get results, but not many leaders are spending time thinking about how people think and act to get results. And so that’s the mark of a great leader, in my opinion, is thinking about the beliefs that need to be fostered in order to drive action so you can get results.
Denver: Are you seeing more of those beliefs coming to the fore in the recruitment process, in really maybe hiring for attitude as much as aptitude?
Jessica: I see maybe an attempt at that that is sorely misguided. People will often try and hire for culture fit, but they’re not talking about what we’re talking about when they think about culture fit. They’re not thinking about the beliefs and values that drive people’s behavior. They’re thinking about: Would I want to go get a beer with this person or not? If I do, that’s a good culture fit. If I don’t, then that’s not.
And that can be really bad for business because now you’ve got unconscious bias helping you make decisions in hiring. And I think most people want to get a beer with someone that they have a lot in common with. And so you end up hiring a bunch of yous if you do that approach. And that can be bad.
Denver: I heard a great analogy about that, Jessica, once… that when you’re building a company, it’s like a desk drawer. And in your desk drawer, you don’t need 12 pairs of scissors. You need scissors; you need scotch tape; you need a stapler, and we do tend to just get more and more scissors, and we’re good at cutting, but that’s about all we know how to do.
Jessica: That is a great metaphor. I’m going to steal that. I love that.
Denver: You have made your name in a lot of different ways, but one of the more prominent ones is that you’ve debunked a lot of the generational myths. What are some of the biggest misconceptions leaders have about intergenerational interactions within their teams?
Jessica: Well, I would zoom out even more. The whole idea of generational differences is just so misguided because what we’re doing is we’re labeling huge swaths of the population based on this 20-year-wide age bracket that they happen to have fallen within, and not looking at the uniqueness of every individual within that classification.
And I tell this example to get people to understand what I’m saying. A lot of organizations have talent strategies around millennials and Gen Z. They have retention strategies for baby boomers. And when you think in those terms, it’s really ageism hiding in a socially acceptable generational label.
And if I were to change those labels to other labels to highlight the point, imagine if you had blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics, and we want a retention strategy for Hispanics, and we want an onboarding strategy for blacks, or we wrote articles the way that we do about generational dynamics, like “five tips for managing millennials.”
Well, what if it was “five tips for managing black employees?” It’s so obvious how inappropriate it is to do that, but it’s become socially acceptable, so we do it. And the biggest myth that I could bust, if I could, is that that is even an idea that is worth spending any energy on. It’s not!
I wasn’t made who I am by 9/11. I was made who I am by thousands of experiences I had as a child that have nothing to do with these big macro trends. And that’s true for all of your employees, not to mention the fact that most of those labels are based on a middle income White American person and doesn’t even embrace the diversity of what exists in the workforce.
Denver: Yeah, but it’s safe to do it now. One day, people will wake up and say: What were we thinking and how could we do it? Because you do speak to people in those cohorts, and they hate being stereotyped. They…
Denver: It’s so important to treat each employee as an individual, and then the biggest lump you can think of, you put them all into a sack and think that they’re all the same.
Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what? It is human nature. 2,500 years ago Socrates was complaining about the next generation, saying that they like chatter instead of hard work, and they valued luxury too much. And I mean, the complaints haven’t even changed in 2,500 years, so this is the way that we do it, and hopefully we’ll get better.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. I’ll try to get better. I’m pretty good with people, I’m not so great with music. I got to tell you sometimes. Oh my god, no: it can’t be. But I’m working on it, Jessica, you know?
Jessica: Well, what generation are you?
Denver: I’d be a boomer.
Jessica: You can’t be a boomer. You’ve got a podcast. You’re not tech savvy, right? I mean, that’s the stereotype.
Denver: There you go. Absolutely. Well, this is not recording. So, I mean, we’ll find out. No, it’s…
You talked about burnout a little bit, and you hear a lot about it. You hear a lot about it in remote situations when people are lonely and alone. What can companies… or what are organizations doing to be proactive about trying to see those signs and do something about it?
Jessica: Well, I think the thing that can combat burnout more than anything is purpose in the workplace. When I am motivated by the purpose and what we are accomplishing here collectively, it creates a different headspace so that the same amount of work can feel very different to those with purpose and those without purpose.
So one of the things I do when I’m hiring someone in my team, the first question I ask in every job interview is: What is your personal purpose? And unrelated to work, just: Why are you here on this planet? And what gives you meaning? Usually people haven’t necessarily thought about that to the extent where they have a canned answer, but they’ll answer, right? They take a couple minutes to figure it out, and they’ll come up with something.
And then my follow-up question is: And our organizational purpose at Culture Partners, it is literally to unleash the power of culture. Can you see how you would be able to fulfill your personal purpose here by contributing to that organizational purpose or not, and how? And then they get to talk about how this role will allow them to serve their greater purpose or not. And that’s purpose fit… is what I look for, not culture fit, but purpose fit.
Denver: Absolutely. And also, I think when they can see the clear lines between what they’re doing and how it fits the mission of the organization. A guy at the Kennedy Center the other day… and he was a facilities manager, and he just kind of said: I did the valet and the parking and stuff… until their CEO said that their number one priority for the year was to create a marvelous guest experience, unlike any other.
And he said, “I was the first person they saw when they got out of their car.” And he said, “It changed everything for me in terms of: I was doing the highest priority of the organization. I was the first impression,” and he says, “I have so much meaning now in what I do.” And I just thought it was a really inspirational story.
Jessica: That’s a great story.
“…I’ve seen that culture is the way to drive sustained behavioral change, not L&D, and not some initiative that’s short-lived. Same thing with DE&I, right? Instead of getting some DEI program where we’re going to send everyone through unconscious bias training and measure how many minorities we hire next year, let’s actually make diversity as a belief core to the function of the business. And then you’re going to start to see change.”
Denver: So, well, let’s talk about wellness programs. Some of them are good. Some of them are not so good. I do know when you talk about burnout, people say, Oh, we’ll get a wellness program in here, and it will be solved. What’s your take on those?
Jessica: Programs and initiatives generally seem to be the solution for every woe of the business world, right? And I think that those are short-lived, and they’re often ineffective because when you have a quote “program” that is here to address a particular program, it doesn’t get at the root cause of the problem that it was created to solve. It’s really a Band-Aid.
And that’s true for wellness programs, for DEI programs, for, you know, insert the program here. They’re all short-lived. What we feel is, to create a culture, you have to make wellness in this example, the core, a core belief that you want to drive in order to live out that existence in the business place.
So for example, at Culture Partners, we have three cultural beliefs that we’re constantly reiterating and reinforcing that drive our actions, and they are: Take accountability. Own the journey. But the third one that is relevant here is: Team First. And that has to do with putting the team above others.
And when we see people doing that, we call it out, we highlight it, and we recognize it. We reward that, and it allows people to put wellness first, the wellness of the team as a mindset rather than putting us through some training program about how to meditate… I mean, which isn’t going to solve the problem. So I’m not super thrilled with programs as a solution.
I feel that culture is… not feel… but I’ve seen that culture is the way to drive sustained behavioral change, not L&D, and not some initiative that’s short-lived. Same thing with DE&I, right? Instead of getting some DEI program where we’re going to send everyone through unconscious bias training and measure how many minorities we hire next year, let’s actually make diversity as a belief core to the function of the business. And then you’re going to start to see change.
Denver: Yeah, so you’re really talking about creating a system and not a goal. Because…
Jessica: Yes, exactly.
Denver: It’s just a line out there; a system is: No, we do this every day. This is who we are. This is what we do.
Jessica: Programs are in the action trap. Let’s do this and see if we get a result. Let’s do that. It’s not long term.
“…leaders need to do exactly what the leader of The Kennedy Center did, which is to create clarity on where we’re going, align the organization around the results, the actions and the beliefs that we want to accomplish. If they don’t do that, then everyone’s moving in different directions. There’s no cohesiveness. It doesn’t give meaning.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So getting back to where you started, employees are becoming more vocal and are being a little bit more bold in their demands. What do you advise a leader to do, and how can they navigate these challenges to get a harmonious and productive workforce?
Jessica: Yeah. I mean, number one is: leaders need to do exactly what the leader of The Kennedy Center did, which is to create clarity on where we’re going, align the organization around the results, the actions and the beliefs that we want to accomplish. If they don’t do that, then everyone’s moving in different directions. There’s no cohesiveness. It doesn’t give meaning.
And ultimately, how can your employees help you achieve results when they don’t even know what results you’re trying to achieve, right? And McKinsey did a study that said that 95% of employees don’t understand their organization strategies. So this is a problem most leaders have.
Then the next piece of this, and this is where we do a lot of our work, is to think about what shapes beliefs, like: What actually gets people to hold those cultural beliefs? And the answer is experiences. The experiences we have are what shape our beliefs. And so, what can leaders do to shape intentional experiences that drive the right beliefs?
And experiences can be big, bold experiences like a leadership retreat where you talk about this or that. But those aren’t even the most powerful ones. The most powerful ones are the everyday experiences, such as the stories that a CEO tells, the recognition that they give, the feedback that they’re giving. And that is really what ultimately drives beliefs over the long term.
So that’s what the great leaders are doing right now… they’re thinking about intentional experience creation.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. I taught a leader the other day about that, and he was saying that the people are getting sick and tired of me just saying it over and over again. And I said to him, “They’re not sick and tired of hearing it; you’re sick and tired of saying it. And just keep on saying it, because they’ve forgotten since the last time. Change it up a little bit in terms of the words you use, certainly not in the belief or the message.”
What about organizational design? Are you seeing organizations begin to reimagine what their organization should look like away from that org chart with those boxes? If so, how so? And what’s the impact that is having on the culture of an organization?
Jessica: I’m not seeing anything that I didn’t see 10, 20 years ago. I mean, organizational design has always been a go-to approach to solve some fundamental brokenness in the organization. It could be silos they’re trying to bust. It can be a dysfunction of lateral collaboration and communication. But again, I just think that that is an action trap move, right?
When you’re looking at org structure as a solution to a problem, you’re looking at a Band-Aid fix. And I mean, I’ve worked at large organizations where… at Oracle for example, I was at Oracle for eight years, and we had field marketing and corporate marketing, and they were together. And then they said, You know what? We need to put field marketing out in the field. We’re going to pull that out of the corporate marketing team. We’re going to restructure, put field marketing into each of the lines of business, and that’s going to make us much more effective.
And that worked for two years. And then someone had the brilliant idea: You know what would be great? If field marketing was combined with corporate marketing so that there was more collaboration and the advantage of scale.
So they pulled it back in, and that kind of back-and-forth restructure happens all the time. That’s ultimately not going to move the needle. And I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen more of that… I’ve just always seen that, and it continues to not necessarily be super-effective.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. No, I’ve done some writing, and I’ve written… and it’s not all that good, and I’ve edited it nine or 10 times, and then the 10th time I realized I’m back to my first edit.
Denver: What was the point of this? Also, when you have a change of leadership too, whatever’s done, they undo everything, and it just becomes a yin/yang going back and forth, and it’s absolutely crazy.
You talked a little bit about: Team First, and I really like that concept. And you almost have to have a culture without egos to be able to do that, but you also probably have to take a look at performance management, which everybody I talk to…. Team first, Team first! But the performance management is based on what you’ve done as an individual.
What’s your thinking about how those two things can move ahead in sync?
Jessica: Well, I’ll say that Team First is what we do at Culture Partners. It is not necessarily the perfect cultural belief for every organization, and we’re culture agnostic, right? So I don’t go into an organization and say, “You guys have to be ‘team first’ and innovative. That’s the key to success.” Because that may or may not be true given the strategy that they have.
And we believe first and foremost, and this isn’t even a belief, it’s data-driven understanding that when culture and strategy are aligned, that’s the formula for success. We did a study of 243 companies with Stanford this year, where we looked at companies that had culture and strategy aligned, versus misaligned.
And the companies that were aligned had 4x revenue over the course of three years than those that were misaligned. So I’ve worked for companies where “team first” was not the strategy and not the culture, and it was not encouraged to be, right? And now I work at this company, and that works for me. And that’s what I’m happy to have as my reality.
But again, it may or may not work for your organization. We do do performance evaluations that revolve around the way that you are putting the team first or not, and so it is consistent, but what you said is key to… if you’re going to reinforce cultural beliefs, then it needs to be seen in all of your systems.
When we work with companies, one of the first things we do is look at their systems to see where are these beliefs being reinforced or not, so that you’re not sending mixed messages to employees.
Denver: Yeah, you make them transparent because very often people don’t see them. They’re there, but they’re not labeled, and they’re not spoken of. They’re just there.
You mentioned data a moment ago. You always talk about or hear about people trying to measure their culture, and if they don’t measure it, you can’t improve it, or whatever. Where do you fall on metrics in terms of the role that they play, where they could be of great use, where they can sometimes be just chasing numbers?
Jessica: This is a great question. So I’ve got two answers for you, and it depends on the organization. So when we’re working with a client and we’re measuring their culture, we measure their culture based on the results that they’re achieving. They’re being intentional about a culture that drives results. And so if they achieve their results, that’s how we measure success of the culture. And if they don’t, that’s how we measure that we still have work to do.
When you’re not driving culture intentionally, and you’re one of these companies that’s just letting culture happen accidentally, right? You’ve just delegated it to HR or something, and HR is not actually empowered. And so, therefore, you just have: culture is. And what it is in those scenarios when it’s accidental is: it’s just the story we tell about who we are.
If you’re not being intentional about it, the only way to measure culture is to ask someone what the culture is like, and their response is the truth, right? So in those scenarios, we do lean on existing metrics that they have around employee engagement or whatever it is that they’re gathering, just to get a sense.
But most of the time, frankly, we’re not even looking at what people think is broken with culture, because that’s what a lot of culture consultants… I’m maybe a little bit jaded in this, but a lot of culture consultants will come in and they’ll say, “We’re going to do an assessment, and we’re going to tell you everything that’s working and not working.”
And they get every interview that they can. And in those interviews, they’re asking executives, “So, what’s broken here? What’s wrong with the company? What would you fix if you could?” And they’re gathering a list of complaints. Then they’re aggregating those interview notes and presenting it to the leadership and saying, “Here’s what’s broken with your company, and we’re going to fix it for the low, low price of a hundred thousand dollars or whatever.” Right?
“And then if you only want some of this fixed, we can give you that fee, or if you want all of it fixed, it’ll be this fee.” And they’re looking for business and upselling you by feeding you fear. We don’t do that. I mean, what we do is we start with the assumption that your culture is perfect. It is absolutely perfectly aligned to the results that you’re getting today. So there it is.
Let’s figure out what results you want to achieve. Are you looking for transformative growth? Are you looking to pivot, or what are you looking to achieve? Let’s start with results. And now let’s create a culture that will align with that. And we look forward. We don’t look back. That, I think, is the key for driving real results. Ultimately, if I had my druthers, culture’s measured by results.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s a great point. I was thinking somewhat akin to that… somewhat parallel, had to do with philanthropy. And I was in with somebody who says, “We’re in an underserved community, and we have our challenges. And philanthropy comes in here and tells us what’s broken, and they’re going to come in and fix us.”
And they said, “You know what? If they ever looked at what was really working in this community and doubled down on it, and gave us money to be sort of like a strength finder, we could solve those problems.” But instead, “You’re broken, you’re broken.” It creates a heavy burden when all you hear is you’re broken, which is remarkable.
You mentioned HR before, so in this new era, how is human resources adapting to it? How is their role changing? Or is it changing?
Jessica: Well, I think HR, every year, gets more empowered to be a trusted advisor to the CEO and to drive real results. And we work with businesses where the CEO understands that culture is a group effort and not an HR initiative. When it is delegated to HR as simply an HR issue, then we know we’re not going to be effective because unless the HR team is as empowered as the CEO is, it’s not going to go anywhere.
Having said that, I think COVID created transformation in the minds of many leaders about the power of people. And strategy is just a piece of paper until the people do something about it, and that’s culture. So I think that we’re seeing more and more empowerment for HR, which I love, and that they’re being taken more seriously.
“On average, every other culture type had revenue growth of 17%, but this one culture type had growth of 49%, which is like 3x. And it was an adaptive culture. So the ability to shift culture, it actually makes so much sense. We believe we know from the research that strategy and cultural alignment… making sure that they’re in sync… is critical to drive results.”
Denver: You see so many different cultures up close, Jessica. Is there a common thread? I know this is a tough question, but something perhaps that isn’t as obvious as transparency that many or most healthy cultures all seem to have in common.
Jessica: Yeah, and actually I have some data around this. So this was from our Stanford research, and it completely surprised us. We were not looking necessarily for that common thread, but it emerged in the data. There was only one culture type that was significantly correlated with increased revenue growth.
On average, every other culture type had revenue growth of 17%, but this one culture type had growth of 49%, which is like 3x. And it was an adaptive culture. So the ability to shift culture, it actually makes so much sense. We believe we know from the research that strategy and cultural alignment… making sure that they’re in sync… is critical to drive results.
Strategy changes all the time. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever worked for a company where by the end of the year, the strategy had not shifted a bit from what we thought it should be at the beginning of the year. That’s normal. We’ve got so many outside influences, new leadership, industry changes, global events, et cetera, et cetera, technology that makes the strategy shift.
Well, the culture needs to be able to shift and adapt in response to that strategy if it’s going to remain aligned. If your culture stays the same, but strategy is constantly shifting, you quickly get misaligned. And therefore, an adaptive culture is the one that wins to the tune of 3x compared to all the other ones.
Now, this wasn’t something that we ever really articulated in those words before. It turns out though, when we look at the work that we do, we’re experts in helping companies shift their culture, to adapt their culture. And it’s by leveraging that framework we talked about, which is if you put results first and understand the actions required and the beliefs necessary to drive those actions, then you can intentionally influence that through experiences.
That is the action of shifting and adapting your culture. So it’s fascinating to see the ROI. It kind of explains the ROI we’ve been seeing in terms that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.
Denver: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. And I think it’s a bit of a mindset shift because people think culture is fixed. You want it to be fixed, almost as if it’s solid. I experienced this a lot during the pandemic with mission… and your mission, you don’t screw around with your mission! You’re a nonprofit organization. But you had to, to remain relevant.
And like the nomenclature switch from mission drift, which always has this suggestion of chasing money… to mission morphing. You got this crisis going on. You’re going to stay exactly the same as if this crisis never occurred? To remain…to keep relevant, you have to morph.
But that I bet… it’s a challenge for a lot of people with culture. They don’t know what it is at a given moment. And they probably don’t really know how to adapt to it. So I guess the things that you suggested are the things that they need to do to be able to achieve it.
Jessica: Well, there’s a lot of leaders that come to us and say, “We’ve got a problem. We’re losing our culture.” It’s changing, right? Either because they’re scaling and hiring so many people, or they’re a family-run business and they want to maintain the culture the way that they have it.
And there’s an assumption there that culture should remain fixed, which may be a faulty assumption. And given the alignment research that we did, it’s true. It’s like, what if culture were more fluid than that?
Denver: Yeah, fantastic. Finally, Jessica, for listeners interested in learning… Well, no, I have one question before. So let me go back to that. Given the fluidity of today’s work environment, where do you see the future of organizational culture heading over the next 5 to 10 years?
Jessica: It’s a great question. I mean, I think it would be a huge win in the world of culture if we all agreed upon a definition of culture, first of all, because when I ask 100 CEOs what they think culture is, they give me 100 different answers. And employee experience was like that five years ago, and now we’re starting to come around one common cohesive definition.
When we talk about employee experience, we’re all talking about the same general thing. Even if it can be played out in technology or in-person, we know what we’re talking about. I think culture needs to have an identity, and that is… we’re still not there. We’ve come a long way from the leaders who believed that culture was Ping-Pong tables and happy hours. But we still got some stragglers who are in that camp.
I think 10 years from now, people will know that culture is a differentiator and a driver of results. There’s still many, many skeptics that believe that culture is a touchy-feely, woo-woo issue that isn’t something they want to touch because they care about execution and operations. And the reality is culture is what gets you execution and operations. And so I think that’s the future.
Denver: For listeners who are interested in learning more about Culture Partners or some of the work and research you’ve done, tell us about the websites and what people will find there.
Jessica: Yeah, we have some tools, toolkits that your listeners may be interested in at gift.culture.io. You can check us out at culturepartners.com. And I have a weekly LinkedIn newsletter, it’s called This Week in Culture, and it’s just keeping everyone abreast of news and culture and what you need to know as a leader interested in culture.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being here today, Jessica. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Jessica: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.