disclaimer: I have strong opinions that I hold rather loosely

I’ll be frank; I don’t like the word ‘Culture’. Or at least its usage in the context of the tech industry. Its ambiguity is routinely abused by companies seeking to entice naive employees into their grasp. Sometimes they even have the gall to list culture under their ‘Benefits and Compensation’ section! As if a good and healthy working environment is an added benefit, rather than a given in any modern place of work.

What is work culture exactly? Some would have you believe that it consists of free coffee, a table tennis table, a beer fridge, and a biweekly day for you to ‘work on personal projects’. I’m not going to say these are bad things, but they do not define a work culture. They are tangentially related to my personal definition of work culture, compromised of the three Cs

  1. Communication
  2. Collaboration
  3. Camaraderie

The stuff I mentioned above, the stereotypical things you might find in an office, or a job description, are meant to facilitate one of these three Cs in one form or another. However, their presence does not imply a good work culture, nor does their absence imply a bad one; they are simply tools whose effectiveness depends on how they are used.

This post will focus on Communication, and I will tackle the next two Cs in separate posts. I must stress that these are only my own thoughts on the subject, and I welcome any challenges or alternate opinions.

Communication #

The first of the Cs, and arguably the foundation upon which the other two reside, is communication; how do colleagues communicate with each other?

In every group of people, a secondary form of language develops from the conversations and interactions that occur during the process of “work”. The longer a group of people interacts with each other, the more entrenched this language becomes. It influences every debate, meeting, and crucially, decision that takes place within the group.

It is, therefore, of immense importance that the development of this language is carefully observed and pruned in order to have the qualities of inclusivity, honesty, and freedom. If these qualities are present, then conversations are more likely to have a diverse range of good ideas. Bad ideas are quickly torn apart, as the language promotes honesty and the freedom to express that honesty.

“Well, that all sounds great Adil, but how on earth do we develop a language, when we’re up to our neck simply developing our app?”

A fair point, my imaginary stressed out founder. As is often the case in start ups, there is a tremendous amount of focus on delivering; ideas must be validated, and validation comes from putting forth an MVP (the minimum viable product). For the sake of the MVP, many things are placed in the backlog; actions that are unequivocally vital for the continued success of any idea. Automated testing is eschewed in favour of manual QA, code is left inefficient and not performant, favouring paying out a larger infrastructure bill as long as the MVP works!.

Some form of debt, technical or otherwise, is taken on willingly; a sacrifice for the MVP, the master of startup destinies. However, cultural debt is not as easily paid off; it’s a lot easier to write an automated test then it is to change something as fluid and intangible as the way people communicate. Social norms tend to have a compounding effect as you add more people to the group; new joiners want to fit in, so they tend to behave in the same fashion as their colleagues. While it’s not impossible to change this, it’s an incredibly complex endeavour due to the nature of the problem; humans are unpredictable and normally averse to change.

While the MVP is the master of a startup’s destiny, Culture controls it’s continued success; it’s effect on productivity, recruiting and retention of talent, and promotion of innovative ideas is practically undeniable. (I would add links to research papers that prove this, but I feel like if you’ve read this far, we’re probably on the same page already. If we’re not; try duckduckgo-ing 'effect of company culture at work research' and see if that changes your mind 😉)

Therefore, while it may be acceptable to make some technical compromises in order to deliver an MVP, some minimal effort must be put towards creating a minimum viable culture. I would call it an MVC, but something tells me that acronym won’t catch on. Forget about the name for the time being, naming stuff is hard. Let’s just focus on what’s the minimum we can do in order to ensure the language of our communication embodies the qualities of Inclusivity, Honesty, and Freedom.

In order to deliver this MVP language of communication, which will be the cornerstone of all communication within the company, and in turn the foundation of the company’s culture, we must take a slight detour to understand how our brains work.

Compassion #

There is a lot of interesting research about how humans evolved to be compassionate; one such paper posits a very interesting idea;

…is that individuals will favor enduring relationships with more agreeable, compassionate individuals because this emotional trait predicts increased cooperative, trustworthy behavior and mutually beneficial exchanges among individuals not bound by kin relations.

While I strongly recommend reading the entire paper, as the subject is quite nuanced, I strongly believe that promoting compassionate conversations has the affect of increasing trust. Trust is essential in any working environment, but never as important as when you are trying to foster Inclusivity, Honesty, Freedom.

Picture a bunch of kids in a classroom; rambunctiously waiting for the shrill ringing of the morning bell that signifies the start of their lesson. Their teacher walks in, and behind the teacher is a slightly sheepish, meek young child who has just joined the school. The kid has no friends; he is an outsider, known to no one, and faces the difficult task of integrating themselves into the increasingly complicated social minefield that is high school.

One of the kids offers to show the newcomer around; and from that moment, the newcomer starts to develop a sense of trust with their ‘guide’. The newcomer starts to feel included when the invited eat lunch with the guides group of friends. With this sense of inclusion, the newcomer shyly joins a conversation about which Christopher Nolan flick is the best, giving an honest opinion that *Inception** is the directors greatest work.

*the newcomer is young so doesn’t know that Memento is objectively the best Nolan movie ever

When the guide vehemently disagrees with him, stating that Interstellar is way better, the newcomer feels the Freedom to disagree, and launches into a convoluted argument consisting of the lack of recognition of Leonardo DiCaprio, the ambigious ending, and the replayability of Inception vs Interstellar**.

**again, Memento is objectively better in all regards. bloody gen z smh grumble grumble.

Now cinema aside, we can see that in this totally-made-up story, the compassion of the guide led to the newcomer feeling Included in a discussion, where they could freely express their honest (if incorrect) opinions.

You can draw your own parallels between the above anecdote and similar experiences in the workplace. Build trust through compassion in your communication, and the fruits of your efforts will be an environment where everyone feels included and free to express their honest opinions. There will always be conflict (no doubt those two kids argued about that subject for days), but as long as they communicate with compassion, this is likely to result in healthy conflict, which is essential to any relationship.

Remember, to be alive is to be suffering. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true; we are all constantly suffering from something or the other, at varying degrees of severity. Compassion is recognising this, just as the guide recognised the newcomer was suffering from shyness.