Many business leaders rely on their HR department to establish and maintain their company culture. There’s a common belief that wowing recruits with benefits like office ping pong tables or free lunches is what makes great culture.
No one would argue that many employees love these benefits; who doesn’t appreciate free food, unlimited vacation days, and ping pong tables? But these things aren’t the secret sauce for building a company culture. Without support and strong leadership from key people in the organization, these “perks” won’t build the sort of camaraderie or commitment you’re looking for from your employees or that they’re interested in giving each other and your company. Ultimately, the groundwork for company culture comes from great leaders; the role of HR, operators, and managers is to help carry out and drive the culture and vision as effectively as possible.
Before helping HootSuite grow from 14 to 900 employees and most recently co-founding Allay, a company dedicated to making HR operations and benefits management easier for smaller companies, I spent three years playing junior and professional hockey. I came out of the experience with a few bodily injuries, and equipped to be a much better leader. The rink taught me some invaluable lessons about the meaning of culture, and how great leaders can help cultivate it.
What professional hockey taught me about being a team player
There are a lot of competing definitions of what constitutes company culture, and whether a company’s culture is “fun” or “professional.” At its core, culture is a set of unspoken rules around what behaviors are, and are not acceptable within a given group (or tribe) of people.
In any tribe, culture starts with the initial group. It’s determined based on the actions of leaders in the group. Culture is reinforced by the group, including new entrants. Culture dictates acceptable and unacceptable behavior, even when nobody else is looking. The way we behave can differ greatly from one culture to another: this is why some people thrive in one company and don’t reach their potential in another.
Cultural norms and our own individual characters often make it very hard for an HR department, or any one person, to shape and enforce group behavior. Typically, what we feel is acceptable comes directly from signals we take from the CEO and other leaders within our specific “tribe.” On a hockey team, culture starts with the coach. The coach enlists players to buy in to his or her vision. The team captain is selected by the coach with support of the players as the person who embodies the character and vision that the team has. This person acts as an extension of the coach and reinforces the coach’s values. When players buy into the vision and values, then the desired actions and behaviors start to become the norm because the tribe and culture reinforce it. On a hockey team, players don’t simply get told what to do, they buy into the group’s vision and then make independent decisions in line with the vision and values.
But what happens if the players aren’t on board?
When culture goes awry
If players can’t work together as a result of this “new way,” they’re going to start losing games.
Using the hockey example, let’s say that a couple of players start regularly showing up late to practice, and generally show poor effort. Initially, they work hard in drills, but then begin to slack off near the end of practice.
If this happens once or twice, it might not be a huge deal. But over time, continued poor effort is going to hurt the team as a whole. This recurring bad behavior will ultimately alter the team norms. If players can’t work together as a result of this “new way,” they’re going to start losing games. If they start losing, they might end up blaming the people who’ve been slacking off, perpetuating a negative team culture. An organization’s culture should never degrade to this point, but it’s easy to see how this could happen — and happen quickly.
This problem is easily avoidable if the coach or captain lets the team know what sort of behavior is expected at the very beginning of the season and continues to communicate these expectations on a regular basis. It is the coach’s job to make it clear that everyone needs to be at practice on time and to give full effort on the ice.
If team members know what’s expected of them and everyone adheres to those expectations, no one will feel comfortable misbehaving, because it sacrifices the vision and lets other teammates down. The culture won’t allow one or a few players to mess it up for everyone else. And in the event that a few players do violate these cultural norms, others will chime in to let them know that’s not how team members on “their team” behave. The team, thus, serves as a culture check for each member.
Culture comes from people, not possessions.
In professional hockey, it’s common for teammates to throw punches in practice when a single player is bringing down the entire team. On the ice, this is how culture is sometimes established and preserved by players and coaches, too. Now, I’m not advocating for physical fights in the office, but poor behavior and performance tends to self-correct as a result of strong culture demonstrated from the top down. In any office environment, this might look like a strongly worded conversation between peers, consequences like a demotion, or an honest performance review. I should mention that maintaining culture has nothing to do with what kind of perks are waiting in the locker room. Culture comes from people, not possessions.
It’s important to remember that even with good team culture, you won’t win every game. But you’ll work better together, handle your losses with grace and dignity, and be in a better position to move forward.
From the ice to the office
It’s the CEO and company leaders’ responsibility to show employees the kinds of behaviors the company stands for, starting from day one on the job.
There are many differences between working in an office and on the ice. Very few fistfights break out in offices, for example (I would hope!). But ultimately, every company and every hockey team is just a tribe of people with their own customs.
In fact, the challenges a business and a hockey team face aren’t that dissimilar. Maybe meetings constantly start late, or failures in one department are always blamed on another. Maybe these incidents have led to a culture where employees are uncomfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback, or where they expect things to be given to them instead of earning them.
It’s the CEO and company leaders’ responsibility to show employees the kinds of behaviors the company stands for, starting from day one on the job. Setting the tone early and often will ensure that employees will enforce these values even when they know you’re not breathing down their necks.
What about HR?
So what’s the role of HR in an organization where leadership takes charge of culture? A great HR leader works closely with key company executives to drive culture, ensure that cultural norms are adhered to and that operations run as smoothly as possible. If you’re the visionary, HR is the executor.
Your HR operations are instrumental in constantly optimizing processes that keep employees fulfilled, productive, and supportive of each other. This includes creating streamlined onboarding processes, staying on top of benefits administration, centralizing information that makes it easier for you to evaluate and reevaluate your company’s policies, and regularly checking in with employees to make sure they are heard and have what they need to excel in your culture. In hockey, there is an entire off-ice team of people that surrounds players to ensure they can excel. If this part of this team isn’t outstanding, the team on the ice finds themselves at a huge disadvantage.
Building a company culture based on respect and accountability ultimately benefits an organization much more than a ping pong table ever will. Though, I’m all for those, too.
Together, you and your “team” — HR, company leaders (regardless of role), and employees — can create a culture that attracts and retains the very best people.