Your workplace community — the way you interact with your coworkers every day — can have a major impact on your productivity, happiness, and self-worth. It’s natural to want to shape the community in ways that might make you feel more comfortable. But how can you shape it?
Over my career I’ve developed a framework that strikes a balance between authority and autonomy; it’s neither omnipotent intelligent design nor chaotic natural selection.
The framework consists of three components: culture, policy, and enforcement. Each shapes and influences the other in an endless feedback loop. By understanding them in turn, and seeing how they intersect, we can be intentional in how we design our community.
What is culture?
For most of my career, I’ve held that culture is all that mattered. Specifically, I believed the quote often misattributed to Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Which is to say, if your team’s culture isn’t aligned with your strategy, you’ll never succeed.
But what is culture? “Culture” refers to the shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and rituals that shape the interactions among employees within an organization. If you were to draw a big Venn diagram of every single coworker’s mental model of the company, culture would be the part in the middle where they all intersect.
In 2009, Patty McCord and Reid Hastings (chief talent officer and CEO of Netflix, respectively) wrote the book on modern tech company culture. More accurately, they wrote a 129-slide Powerpoint deck on the company’s culture; Sheryl Sandberg called it “one of the most important documents ever to come out of Silicon Valley.” It defined seven aspects of the culture, including its values, expectations for employees, approach to policy, ways of making decisions, compensation, and career progression frameworks.
But culture can’t be written down. In the very same deck, McCord and Hastings cited Enron’s company values (“Integrity, communication, respect, excellence”). The values, they noted, were chiseled in marble in the lobby of Enron’s office. But history shows that Enron’s real company culture contained none of those things.
What is policy?
When I was running my own company, I genuinely enjoyed thinking about company policies. At the time, I felt that even though the company was small and relatively poor, our policies could attract the best talent in the world.
“Policy” refers to the guidelines, rules, and procedures that govern employees. Some policies are bound to legal requirements: discrimination, harassment, and security policies are in place to ensure that employees don’t break the law.
Other policies aren’t backed up by laws, but apply to the whole company equally. Vacation policies, for example, usually dictate the number of days an employee can take paid leave from work, and how employees should schedule and coordinate those days.
Other policies still are put in place by smaller teams of coworkers to govern functional or cross-functional units as they do their work. These are policies like requiring regular critiques and approvals of creative work, getting peer code reviews, or doing postmortems after technical issues.
Generally, I’m an acolyte of the McCord school of policy, which is to say I don’t think we need much at all: according to Netflix’s culture deck, in 2004 she said “There is no no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one has come to work naked lately.” In 2009, GM’s current CEO Mary Barra (then the VP of global human resources) demonstrated this approach in dramatic fashion, rewriting the company’s clothing policy from a 10-page manifesto to the two-word maxim “dress appropriately.”
However, I’ve seen the minimal policy approach go awry; when not supported by cultural norms or consistent enforcement, the lack of policy can reinforce a status quo of privilege, bias, and hierarchy.
What is enforcement?
I’ve always struggled with enforcement. I believed that if culture and policy were strong, then there was no need for enforcement; everyone would feel compelled to follow the high standard they held for each other. But recently, I’ve understood its importance. That’s why it’s the third piece of this puzzle, the last one to fall into place.
Culture is an unwritten belief. Policy is a recorded norm. “Enforcement” is an action that demonstrates those beliefs and norms. It can take many forms, like counseling, coaching, or discipline. It can be as light and casual as an emoji in a group chat, or as grave and serious as termination without notice.
Effective enforcement is hard. It requires being both consistent and flexible. Every situation is unique; good enforcement is fair and equitable, with an emphasis on clear communication and collaboration. While, traditionally, HR is the group that enforces a company’s policies, the highest performing teams police themselves.
Enforcement can positively reflect cultural values and policy beliefs. For instance, Kayak requires its engineers and designers to occasionally handle customer support, a task usually reserved for trained associates. Instead of merely suggesting this practice, Kayak enforces it. Kayak co-founder Paul English says “once they take those calls and realize that they have the authority and permission to give the customer their opinion of what is going on and then to make a fix and release that fix, it’s a pretty motivating part of the job.”
Balancing the feedback loop
Culture, policy, and enforcement constitute a web of forces in tension, holding the workplace community in balance. If any of the three pull too hard, the others can break, and the community can fall apart. So how do you keep the tension working for you?
Culture can influence policy by first acknowledging and valuing policy. This doesn’t mean that policy has to be exhaustively written down; Mary Barra’s rewrite of GM’s dress code wasn’t about removing policy altogether. She was asking managers and employees to think carefully about the policy, to consider how it shaped (and was shaped by) the company’s culture, and to make decisions together. At Wharton’s 2018 People Analytics Conference, Bara said: “if you let people own policies themselves, it helps develop them.”
Culture can influence enforcement by changing the manner of enforcement altogether. In a positive culture, enforcement is likely to be carried out in a fair and consistent manner. In a negative workplace culture, enforcement may be carried out in a punitive or arbitrary manner, which can lead to resentment. If your team’s mechanisms of enforcement are unclear, ask: “How do our cultural values result in action?”
Policy influences culture by creating common knowledge. It’s a kind of mythos, an origin story, or a shared language. On most teams, one of the first things any new member does is learn the team’s policies; the first week of an employee’s tenure is usually the only time they read the company handbook. This sets the tone for the rest of their time with the company or team. Take advantage of those moments to build your culture up.
Policy can influence enforcement by setting expectations, creating consistency, and guaranteeing fairness. Without clear policy, consistent enforcement is impossible and may seem arbitrary. If there is no policy at all, enforcement is entirely subjective and personal. Sometimes, the key to enforcement lies in simply defining, discussing, and committing to a policy. In the event that enforcement is necessary, the shared understanding created by clear policy will make it easy for the team to act.
Enforcement shapes culture by buttressing the shared values of the team. Negative aspects of culture like privilege and bias are, in part, a result of inconsistent enforcement of policy: unfair enforcement creates a culture where some people expect to be exempt from some rules. Leaders should be just as beholden to a team’s values as those they lead, or else the culture will splinter along the fault lines of management layers.
Enforcement shapes policy by creating (or reducing) “shadow policy.” That is, if not all policies are enforced, and if there are expectations that are enforced but not written or communicated, team members will tend to ignore policies altogether. In many cases of white collar crime or malfeasance, shadow policies overwhelmed the written rules, undermining them entirely.
Culture, policy, and enforcement are three aspects of every workplace community. The ways in which they interact define the health of that community. When they’re in balance, the community can grow and adapt to challenges without losing its identity, like an animal evolving, reacting to its environment by adapting over generations.
If those aspects of community are out of balance, teams, functions, and entire companies are brittle and self-destructive. Bad culture undermines well-intentioned policy. Unclear, unwritten policy leads to unfair and inconsistent enforcement. Too much enforcement, or not enough, or the wrong kind at the wrong time, can fracture culture into in-groups and out-groups.
In these ways, the balance of culture, policy, and enforcement is vital. Being vigilant about the balance, regardless or your role, will help you shape and guide your workplace community. The more your team works to understand these components, the more they make intentional choices to keep them in healthy tension, the happier, productive, and more fulfilled you’ll be.