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

As I discussed in my post on mapping out company values, your culture isn’t and can’t be what just one person thinks or wants. This means that, at some point, cultural practices may become common that you, as a manager, may not have expected or especially wanted.

Like a plant, you can’t tell culture how to grow. You can try to guide it, but you can’t control it fully (except by killing it).

One could look at trying to stop culture change as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement – providing negative stimulus until the correct behavior is matched – can work, but can also have downsides. One study shows increased learning during negative reinforcement sessions…but also increased “inappropriate behavior”. In other words, you can be negative about behaviour until your staff complies, but they’ll act out in other ways. 

Here’s my example: when I worked at a previous job, we moved from the moderately-hip downtown Mountain View to the fairly boring Redwood City. The adjustment was hard, especially when it came to lunch options.

map of taco locationsThat is, until we found out that Redwood City has the largest number of taquerias per capita. Being foodies and techies, we launched a grand plan: every Tuesday we would go to a new taqueria, then add it to a custom Google Map along with a rating. We called it Taco Tuesday. You can find the map here.

This was great fun and united the whole team: devs and marketing alike. Seeing as how some of the taquerias were far from the office, our Tuesday lunches would often stretch to 1.5 hours.

When our CEO discovered most of the company gone, he was very perturbed. He asked what was going on and the practice was explained. And, as I remember it, we got a stern word of warning about leaving for so long.

Our CEO didn’t want a culture of people who took a 1.5 hour lunch. That’s what he saw. What we saw was some fun in our day and better connections to our coworkers. At the end of the day, that’s worth extra-long lunches.

If the extra lunchtime was truly damaging things, he could have tried to retain the cultural benefit and lessen the downside by offering to have the company sponsor Taco Tuesday, but limit it to once or twice a month. Instead, he created intense dissatisfaction in the company and damaged an evolving culture.

Does this mean you should accept everything your employees do? Certainly not…you should discourage truly destructive or problematic trends. But be sure to look at them through the lens of culture-building first. Tacos might be more important than you think.

Taco photo courtesy of Alejandro Lavinjr.