At every stage in the life of an institution, culture is critical. Culture is the distillation of shared values, the vehicle by which purpose and mission coalesce into the products, services, and social outcomes that give people’s work meaning. It is the means to trust with stakeholders of all sorts, and thus the institutional brand.
Creating and steering culture, then, is a topmost job for every leader. And right now, for many leaders, the culture is in crisis. But it’s not just the likes of Basecamp and Coinbase—two companies that recently banned political talk at work—who are feeling this.
That’s because institutional culture must coexist with the larger culture of the external world, lest it become anachronistic or irrelevant. And our common culture seems, on the surface at least, to be in a bad place, riven with sharp disagreements on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, the fairness of our democratic institutions, and so much more.
Attitudes around these issues are becoming a major component of our identities. So it’s not surprising they are showing up in the workplace and challenging corporate cultures. And they go beyond just political debates about external issues. Increasingly they hit closer to the inner life of the company, in matters of diversity in hiring, equitable pay, and social inclusiveness.
At the same time, talking about these issues has become harder. Inequality and injustice are becoming increasingly visible and fueling a passion for change. Politics of division are weaponizing words and stoking the flames of every debate. Above all, topics that beg for conversations are often among the hardest and most personal in our lives—not the usual fare in contemplating workplace culture.
What is a leader to do?
The best way to address the problem, is to ask, “What future should we pursue?” for ultimately an institutional culture both reflects and in some way affects the larger culture.
Seen in this way, the old path of avoiding hard topics and staying silent on societal issues is impossible. Or rather, the avoidance it represents is its own choice, for a nostalgia that seems increasingly untenable. We could question whether we should have a culture of open dialogue, of work and home eliding into each other, or of work becoming less a place of “get paid, go home” and more a source of meaning. But the new reality is, we are already here.
And, paramount in today’s common culture, the thing to which corporate culture must cohere, is the idea of being heard. That is the common thread of every side in every discussion. From “Black Lives Matter” to complaints about “Cancel Culture,” people are demanding that they be heard, and it’s a folly for leaders to pretend people will give that up at work.
For leaders who accept the new reality a new path is emerging, and it is one that fosters the push to full expression. Inherently, this is also an inclusion of more equality and less injustice. Their job is to find the way to have a corporate culture that is rooted in empathy, all of which make hard conversations possible.
Leaders on this path recognize the toxicity of divisive politics. But they don’t see it as an excuse for moral apathy. They understand that apolitical and amoral are not the same. They know emotionally charged labels have served as barriers to understanding. And realize that to accept empathy as optional is to admit defeat.
The culture of the future is not one of coercion but consent. So while others are managing employees as subjects, the forward-looking leaders are embracing employees as the new constituency.
For those of you who are reading this, nodding your head, and aspiring to this path, here are some clear actions you can take:
- Make a declaration of choosing this path to your employees. Provide a clear answer to the question:”what future should we pursue?”
- Provide a nice severance to employees who are unable to approach tough conversations with empathy and update your hiring process to screen these people out.. The only way you can have an open, inclusive culture with productive, tough conversations is to establish empathy as non-optional.
- Develop a program to build and sustain conversation with your employee constituency. By now you realize the problem isn’t giving employees a voice, it’s creating an environment where only those that shout get heard.
Make no mistake. The new path is not easy. Along the way it’s likely to be uncomfortable. And moments of failure are guaranteed. For many it will require no less than a renaissance in the nature of their employee relationship. But those who embrace it will be the reason humanity progresses into a better future.
Andrew Konya is the CEO of Remesh, an AI-driven market research platform.