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Culture Makers and Culture Killers (Part 1)

Hard work, not shortcuts, is key to building a quality team

CHICAGO — Every drycleaning company has a culture, but is it one that brings people in or drives them away?

Over the past few years, there’s been no end of advice about how business leaders can build a “positive workplace culture” — to the point where “culture coaching” has become a multi-billion-dollar field globally.

Part of what’s led to this consulting industry is the desire by many business owners to find a way to build or repair that “team spirit” quickly to become a company that attracts the best applicants and keeps valuable employees for the long term.

But are there ways to make the path to a successful culture shorter?

The “Secret”

For Sean Abbas, the “secret” to building a great workplace culture isn’t much of a secret at all.

If I had to break culture down, it’s the byproduct of good leadership,” he says. “It’s a byproduct of caring leadership, and it’s a byproduct of high expectations.”

Abbas is president of Threads Inc., a software company he co-founded to help organizations review employees and manage performance. He has spent many years studying this facet of business, and believes that there’s no substitution for doing the hard work.

There’s no shortcut to culture,” he says. “But we’re Americans, man — we want to know how we can write a check to get that culture.

And a lot of businesses are writing that check. According to a 2019 report in the Harvard Business Review, companies spend on average $2,200 per employee on efforts to improve the culture — with much of that going to consultants, surveys and workshops. The results? Only 30% of human relations (HR) departments reported a good return for that money.

Part of the confusion about cultivating a positive culture comes from companies who have a vested interest in presenting themselves as “the best places to work.”

“Look at the big examples that are peddled in front of us as the ‘Unbelievable’ cultures,” he says. “Pay attention to what they’re doing. They are packaging their culture and advertising to you like they love and care for their employees.”

Abbas believes there’s a simple reason for this approach: “They do this because, if you’ve got a flying decision to make, and if it looks like the employees are having fun at Southwest Airlines, you might choose that airline over another one. Or if you think Zappos treats their employees great, and they have such a great time at work, will you choose to buy your shoes from that online retailer versus another online retailer?”

Business owners such as dry cleaners will be better off, Abbas says, if they take the time to look at the realmotives behind these messages: “At the end of the day, we have to understand that most of the messaging around culture coming from another business is 100% marketing. They are trying to get you to make a buying decision.”

The problem with this type of marketing, he says, is that it provides a false narrative for leaders who genuinely want to improve or maintain a positive workplace culture.

“The popular view is that it takes budgets and team-building games and activities and exercises and so on,” Abbas says. “A common mistake that I see for smaller businesses is that they think it costs money. They think that it takes a budget for culture, happiness, enjoyment, and it doesn’t. It takes effort, and it takes hard work. I believe that it’s intangible things that are going to take effort, and they’re going to take investment from you of your time. But, ultimately, it’s not as expensive as what people think it is.”

Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll examine some of the misconceptions business owners sometimes hold when it comes to creating an atmosphere that retains team members.

Culture Makers and Culture Killers

 (Photo: © IGorVetushko/Depositphotos)

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].