I’ve been in many talks about changing structures to eliminate inequities. There’s one structure that we must put at the top of our list to re-evaluate. That structure is organizational culture. If you need a refresher on defining culture, these two sentences from The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture summarize it well.

“Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.”

In this article, I am addressing cultural practices both above and below the surface. Here are four common exclusionary cultural practices that may be keeping your organization stuck:

1) Glorifying Your Organizations’ Cultural “Meritocracy.”

Meritocracies are a myth. Operating on the principle that anyone can make it if they want it bad enough is a flawed assumption. The people that fare the best in a meritocracy have privileges that others do not. Referrals arrive to your organization with a leg up. Conversely, when you take a risk and hire that person from the outside that may change your company, oftentimes, they start off on an unequal playing field. They have no support network. Take a look around. If you can’t seem to generate diversity in the leadership ranks, your meritocracy may be clobbering your inclusive, equitable, cultural efforts.

2) Fostering narrow, exclusive, “fun” structures. 

Many organizations pride themselves on the fun culture that they have. Usually, the fun is one and the same: happy hours, playing sports or even ping pong. These activities may be fun for the people that created them but it’s important to keep in mind that, many times, these activities aren’t representative of your staff or the culture that you really want to build. It may be time to explore how accessible and desirable these activities are to all employees, especially underrepresented employees. Some evaluative questions can help you get started:

  1. Are these activities scheduled during different times of the day so that everyone has access?
  2. Are these activities based exclusively around partying or drinking? Keep in mind that many people may not drink and this may not be how they choose to have fun.
  3. If there are diverse offerings of activities, are senior leaders attending all of them or are they only attending sports or top heavy events?

The key here is having something for everyone, and each of those somethings should have leadership support.

3) Hiring and rewarding based on “culture add” vs “culture fit.”

Have you ever conducted a “fit interview” for someone? If so, in that fit interview, you likely assessed if someone fit in at the company. If the candidate was highly technically qualified but wasn’t a culture fit you might have passed on them. Culture add is the opposite concept. Instead of screening priority being based on fit, you are assessing and welcoming what the candidate can add to your organization. That candidate may not be like everyone else but they will bring a much needed skillset to your team.

The issue with culture fit is that similarity bias, seeing people in a positive light that are similar to you, is subconsciously often the measuring stick for it. For example, I have worked with many leaders who insist that an employee either doesn’t fit or is underperforming when, in actuality, they are indeed highly productive. These leaders will say things like the employee isn’t “aggressive” enough. Or, they may not be “passionate” enough. Or, they might not be “obsessed” enough. In having these conversations with said leaders, after coaching, they often realize that these are words that they often use to describe themselves. It’s not about performance, it’s actually about similarity or “culture fit. The leaders often forget why they hired the person in the first place, which is to bring a new skill set to the team. While they may not exactly fit in the culture, they do add something new.

The key takeaways here:

  1. If you can’t objectively measure and communicate what success looks like, you are probably unknowingly operating on similarity bias.
  2. If your criteria to measure your employees is based on your own strengths, you may be operating from similarity bias.
  3. Challenge yourself to consider what someone adds to your team. Consider what your organization really needs in terms of skill set. Also, encourage culture add employees to bring their whole self to work, and allow them to influence existing structures.

4) Emphasizing Perks over Psychological Safety.

When visiting any company’s given “careers” page, perks are usually at center stage. However, considering that the #1 reason why people leave companies is bad managers, why is that still the case?

When discussing perks, let’s use a movie metaphor. We want to see a movie but aren’t sure which one. We watch a series of trailers to figure it out. We eventually find a trailer that excites us, so we decide to see the movie. The movie starts off great but it starts to decline halfway through. Unfortunately, it also has a flat ending. Sometimes we even turn it off, or fall asleep, before it’s over. The trailer fooled us and misrepresented the movie.

The same process happens in the workplace. Similar to trailers for movies, perks on websites can be exciting, but don’t represent the big picture or tell the whole story. The issue is that the producers, similar to organizations, lead with the excitement first; not the structures that really make a difference in supporting psychological safety.

The takeaway:

  1. Shift some of that investment into the actual movie (or developing your managers), not the trailer (the exciting stuff).
  2. Promote and focus on important experiences like psychological safety, diversity and inclusion at the manager level. As the studies say, employees would rather have a good manager over a ping-pong table.

There are many other practices that could be holding you back, but this is simply a list to get your started. Which practice are you ready to retire and what new practices are you ready to embrace?

I would like to hear more about what you are experiencing in your organization. Share your thoughts in the comments.