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Culture comes from the top…including bad culture.

This is part of a two-month series on the importance of company culture. Find more posts about culture here.


Culture can be nurtured and maintained by the group, but the leadership of a company is going to have a huge affect on it.

Don’t believe it? Check out what The Wall Street Journal has to say about the influence of bosses on our lives:

“The culture of office politics can alter our perceptions of faces and expressions in subtle ways. Normally, we recognize our own face first in a group of photographs, for instance. Under some circumstances, though, it is the picture of our boss that we respond to first, in an involuntary reaction that overrules our usual social reflexes.” [Tweet this]

Sign that says "my boss told me to change the stupid sign so I did"If that makes you a little uncomfortable, I don’t blame you! With this in mind, it’s not surprising that 65% of Americans would choose a better boss over a raise. [Tweet this] I can speak from experience here: having a bad boss was a drag on my whole life and attitude. Having a good boss here at UserVoice has immensely increased my happiness, productivity, and high-five rate.

With bosses being so influential, problems can arise when they don’t follow the company values. Often this isn’t an intentional slight…it may be that they believe in the values but then forget them when going about their daily business. Unfortunately, staff see this and either explicitly or unconsciously model their behavior after it.

Culture is largely about attitude, which then leads to actions. This effect can be very dangerous, and turn company values into the shallow statements that some skeptics think they are

Some examples:

Failure:

“We don’t have paid time off – just take as much as you want!”
…but then the boss never takes a vacation, and the staff feel guilty taking their own time off.

“We give our staff 20% of their time to build whatever they want!”
…but then the boss pushes the team to get a huge project done in a short amount of time, making that 20% free time unlikely. I’ll admit that we tried 20% time and ran into this exact problem, so we stopped our 20% time program.

“We really care about our customers.”
…but then the boss says that a customer using Internet Explorer 6 is “a stupid idiot.” The staff hear this and thus find it hard to treat that customer with respect. Hell, even a boss rolling their eyes can product the same effect.

Don’t get too depressed, though! For every failure story, there are plenty of success stories.

Success:

”Don’t take yourselves too seriously.”
Our CEO, Richard White, follows through on this value regularly, making us all a lot more comfortable cracking jokes in emails and meetings. Case in point…

 

“Apple is all about consistent, simple design.”
Whether you dug his style or not, Steve Jobs never failed to dress with as much simplicity as he gave his products.

“Amazon is all about innovation.”
While not always (but sometimes) the actual inventor, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is constantly involved in groundbreaking projects like the 10,000-year clock and the Blue Origin spaceflight company.


It’s funny. I asked my followers on Twitter if they knew of any leaders who really lived up to their values. A lot of well-meaning employees named their own bosses. But when I asked them what exactly they do to live up to these values, many didn’t have an answer. Their bosses obviously care about the company values. But frankly, that’s not enough.

How to follow through? Richard says:

“I probably learned most about being a manager from relationship counseling and observing the anti-patterns of my past bosses. At the end of the day it’s all about the relationships you have with your employees (and paying attention to the relationships between employees) so a lot of it carries over. It’s not rocket science. You have to be able to be able to truly empathize with those you manage.”

Is this tough? Absolutely. Welcome to being a leader. The little things you do and say have a big effect. If you can’t keep yourself in check, then you might want to reconsider your leadership role.