| Feb 4, 2021

Emphasising Workplace Culture Is a Mistake

A healthy workplace culture is an easy thing to promise — but overemphasising it can lead to low workplace morale if it doesn't fit your employees' expectations.
young adults workplace
By Gary Forrest |

<1 minutes

Out of context, “culture in the workplace” does sound a bit like empty corporate jargon. In reality, it’s a crucial part of operations in almost any business. A massive body of evidence supports this and details how culture affects everything from employee motivation to productivity and talent retention. It’s also become an increasingly fundamental part of brand image and identity.

But here’s an interesting question to ask: could all the positive press about positive workplace culture actually be hampering innovation and distracting companies from what’s really worthwhile?

Yes. Yes, it could, and it probably is. Here’s why:

What Culture Is and Isn’t

Culture isn’t something you create. You can define it, talk about it, interact with it, participate in it, claim it — you can do all that, but you can’t make it. It’s the result of a bunch of complex processes that intersect with each other. You could say the same thing about a crop yield. The farmer sows the seeds and does everything possible to ensure the plants turn out healthy and productive, but the farmer can’t actually make the harvest. The harvest is the result, not the process.

To clarify, a healthy culture is something every organisation should care about and aspire to. At the same time, the only way to achieve is by focusing on the underlying processes — namely, finding the right people and engaging with them in the right way. It’s hard to put it any better than Sir Richard Branson, who said, “There is no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.

That leaves two questions: how do you get the right people, and what is the right way to treat them?

The Right People

The right people for any organisation generally come with two qualifications. One, they have the necessary skills. Two, they share a vision with the people beside them. In a football club, one sure way to create a losing culture is to bring three or four world-class strikers onto the team who all want to score the most goals. Even if you had a plan to leverage their skills in an attack-heavy scheme, it won’t matter unless they understand and share that vision and plan. Plenty of employers recognise this, which is part of what’s informing the growing trend in which “soft” skills like flexibility and creativity are emphasised as much as the quantifiable ones more traditionally found on resumes.


The Right Engagement

A positive culture isn’t built around being nice, although that can help. It’s more about doing the things that keep everyone in the organisation passionate about their role. That means taking the time to be empathetic — to understand how each person views their own contribution and how the organisation can support them in doing the best they can. The other benefit of close engagement is that you quickly see how other people treat you. If it doesn’t match up with your expectations, you know you have work to do in the leadership department.

Organic Versus Built

Some people believe that culture can be intentionally plastered onto an organisation. Maybe, with enough hard work, it is possible. On the other hand, it seems like a stretch to imagine that values and ethics — two major factors that influence culture — can be instilled in an employee through any amount of workshops, meetings, or memos. In other words, it makes a lot more sense to put aside any overarching plans for developing a culture and just focus on the fundamentals. If you surround yourself with people who share your mindset and want to be there and lead by example when it comes to engagement, then culture will take care of itself.


Gary Forrest
Executive Author

Chairman, The High Street Group

Gary Forrest is Chairman of The High Street Group and has over 30 years’ experience in financial services and instruments, initially in the mortgage sector and subsequently in investments. view profile


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