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  • Writer's pictureSusan Chen

“What are the worst behaviours that we will tolerate?”

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

Working in an emerging market is like leaping between an ocean and a volcano in one big giant step. One morning, you may be working to turnaround a struggling business, and in the afternoon, you are advising and contemplating ways to grow a new company’s headcount from 5 to 100 in 10 months.

In between the water and the fire, the make or break factors, ultimately, are the people and the company culture. In living and embracing that culture, is often a fine line between knowing what you want and getting what you need to keep the business going.

After consuming some much needed coffee one Monday morning, I sat down with a growth CEO, who looked at me with such bright and hopeful eyes and said, We need to hire the right people to grow rapidly.” I must say, I really applauded him for having this focus at the start of the company’s growth journey. I had seen the same hopeful puppy eyes before and heard the same line from a struggling CEO - “You need to hire the right people for us!”, in a situation where the company was bleeding cash faster than you can spell CULTURE in one breathe. In reality, at that point ‒ 4 years and millions of dollars too late‒it is more about firing the right people than hiring the right ones.

All the questions about hiring and firing people got me thinking about the short-sightedness of merely asking questions such as “What talent do we need?” “Where can we find good people?” and “What technical competencies do we need to scale?”

The real question is “What kind of culture do we want?”

As a HR practitioner working over a decade across three continents, I have noticed that people either frown or yawn when HR tries to engage leaders in a discussion about organization culture. They think of pink cotton candy, free massages, open working space and buzz words like integrity, collaboration, entrepreneurship and openness.” A quick Google search will tell you that, academically, “Organisational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organisation and dictate how they dress, act, and perform their jobs.”* At the risk of revealing my age, this exact definition was what was taught in my Organizational Studies undergraduate program (it was not even called HR then!!) more than a decade ago! And this definition is precisely what makes people frown and yawn because it provides little practical resolution on which to build or transform company culture.

My favorite way of thinking about culture is that “Culture is shaped by the worst behaviors that you will tolerate.”**

By asking “What are the worst behavior that we will tolerate?” and thinking about culture as something more than pink cotton candy that has its own darker sides allows you to consider the practical people implications of culture, and how they are reflected in leadership behaviours and business processes.

Too often, we define what we want from a culture, the type of talent and behaviors we want, but we do not think about what we don't want. Essentially, knowing the boundary between what you don’t want and what you will tolerate is the foundation that truly shapes your company culture. For example, a culture of “working hard” may not tolerate working from home more than once a week. That boundary redefines, or actually, defines the process of your future employee selection. Essentially, to support the culture, you should not focus on hiring people who do not enjoy working in an office almost every day or prefer to work remotely – and vice versa. For a company culture that embrace a performance culture with full flexibility, with the culture being defined as working anywhere and anytime will need to have performance indicators and tracking that focus on the outcomes of work, rather than attendance in the office.

In essence, organizational culture itself should be value-neutral as it supports the organisational needs. It is only value-dependent when the culture is in conflict with the business requirements.

You cannot thrive by applying another company’s culture to your company just because it works for them. That approach is like choosing a pair of one-size-fits-all slipper over a good sturdy tailor-made boots and trying to walk or run a thousand miles in them!

So next time when you are hiring, firing, developing and review talents, instead of asking, “What type of talent do we need?” ask “What kind of culture do we want?” and “What are the worst behavior that we will tolerate?”

You may be surprised!

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