It’s vital for the longevity of teams that a strong and healthy culture be allowed to develop. So vital, I wish we didn’t talk about it.

If a conversation kicks off along the lines of: “we need to sort out the culture”, understand that the discussion is already operating under implicit assumptions, primarily that culture is disparate or in some way disconnected from the day-to-day operation of the organisation. Like “methodology”, “culture” can be a gatekeeper that frames how we engage with a topic, limiting us from exploring good solutions in other spaces.

To discuss “culture” is to assume a specific space in which we’re allowed to look for solutions.

The natural retort may be that every human is free to think how they want, and yes, the use of a word or the starting point of a conversation is not powerfully determinative - we can of course break free. Regardless, providing space for assumptions to fester is not constructive, and over time reinforce dangerous patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking that can afflict all areas of an organisation.

So yes, using the word “culture” may not be the end of the world. But ask someone what they think when you say “company culture”, and their response is more likely centred around “birthday cakes”, “Friday drinks” or “staff outings”, than “meaningful work”, “employee empowerment”, or “open communication”.

There is no single correct way to do anything, so long as you understand the why behind the what. When it comes to solving any problem my preferred process can be thought of as occurring across two spaces, the problem space - where we identify and define the problem, and the solution space - where we look for and find consensus on possible solutions.

While the problem may be “cultural” (let’s say, a lack of camaraderie), the solution may lay in a completely different space.

If we want to be able to solve problems, first we need to look for solutions in the right places. When our goal is sustainable practices that can develop into second nature, solutions are best devised not from the top down, but instead by engaging openly with employees. But starting a conversation around “culture” is not engaging openly. If you ask about culture you’ll receive requests for birthday cakes, or a more expensive Friday beer. Instead ask employees questions like: “What is the worst thing about your job?”. “What would improve each day?”. “What is the best thing about your job? How could it be even better?”. I can assure you you’ll receive wildly different answers.

In the worlds of design and engineering there is a simple rule. Something is complete not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.

On the search for improved staff morale, don’t rush to bolt on extras. You are surrounded by people who are there to do good work, that is the singular constant that despite all else, should not change. Leverage that constant. Make it do more work for you. Organise so thatwork facilitates more collaboration, presents more opportunities for problem solving, and presents more meaningful and engaging experiences for each person you are responsible for.

Having transparent discussion and asking open ended questions of employees can be scary. But it’s better that we ask, and then strive to provide healthy and sustaining environments.

After all, even if we’re not asking these questions of our employees, it doesn't mean others aren't.

“What is the best thing about working at x?”

“Well, we get birthday cakes.”