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Company culture matters: a mindset from the past

Interview with Marcus Buckingham, author, global researcher and business consultant

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European Business: What was the worst and most obvious lie you came across during your career?

Marcus Buckingham: It is lie number four “The best people are well-rounded”. In the world of business and work most of our people processes are built on the assumption that the most effective people in any job possess a list of qualities and competencies. And we should hold people accountable according to this lie. We should measure people against a list of competencies, we should train people to acquire the competencies they lack. In fact, the greatest value of each person is different. That is not a problem we need to fix, it is a feature that we have to make the best use of. The power of human nature is that human nature is unique. So, the biggest lie in business is that the business says to itself: We would be so much more efficient if everyone in the same job had the same list of competencies, which of course means you don’t spend all of your time trying to make everyone the same.

European Business: In your book you argue that company culture described by sources like Fortune or Glassdoor matters less than what team you’re on within a company. What can you recommend to people who want to find out about teams when they apply for jobs?

Marcus Buckingham: The most popular question in job interviews is: What is the company's culture like? If you try to measure a company's culture you can’t find it, you can’t measure it. Companies don’t seem to have in any measurable way a uniform culture. The question that people should ask in job interviews is: Tell me what you do to build great teams. And what people should listen for is any action or any focus that the company has on either figuring out what their best teams do differently or figuring out what the company does to support and educate team leaders. That is going to be a much more interesting relevant and reliable inquiry than what's the company culture like.

There are more questions to ask, for example: Which team am I joining? Who are the colleagues and where do they work? What are they like and how often do we get together? The more questions you can ask about the team you are joining, the better.


European Business: Do you think it can be helpful to work for example half a day or one day in the company before starting the job to find out if you fit in the company?

Marcus Buckingham: Anything you can do to get to know the people you will be working with is a good thing. A half day is better than nothing. Your instincts around that day are very important. If you have a half day and you are working with people and you feel wrong, then you should really pay attention to that. Spending half a day with future colleagues or an hour with the team leader is so much more relevant in terms of your job selection than culture.

European Business: In our interview leadership expert Alan Willet said the following thing about feedback: “I have a problem with doing surveys on a daily or weekly basis because anything you do too often loses its power.” Do you agree with that?

Marcus Buckingham: Maybe, I mean there is no evidence to that, and it is his point of view. It depends on many factors. If you ask a question per week that’s fine, you can do that. We do that all the time. Doing long surveys every day, you get survey-sick, so you wouldn’t do that. There is certainly proof that frequent attention between the team leader and the team member is the most important thing you can do to engage your people.

The best team leaders do it every single week with each person on their team individually for 10-15 minutes by asking two simple questions. This isn't a survey, but two simple questions: What are your priorities this week? and How can I help? Measurably we know, if you do that every single week your people end up being as twice as productive and twice as engaged, more than twice as engaged, actually, than managers who do that only once a month. Human beings like attention. We just thrive on attention, particularly about attention about us and our work, that’s what the data shows.

Marcus Buckingham
„If you try to measure a company's culture you can’t find it, you can’t measure it." Marcus Buckingham

European Business: As you said before, people need attention. How can a leader make sure to provide attention to every single employee?

Marcus Buckingham: You need to have a ritual, like a check-in once a week. If you can't check-in with your people a few minutes a week than you either have too many people or you shouldn’t be a team leader. You need to be specific, the check-in doesn't have to be in person. You can do it via phone or email. The most important thing is that you commit yourself to do it, 52 weeks throughout the year. If you think this is too much or if you think you are going to hear the same story every time, then you shouldn’t be a team leader, get out of that job and do something else.

We have completely overcomplicated of what leading is. We make it very abstract, very theoretical and it doesn’t need to be like that. The simplest thing you can do as a team leader is to ask those two questions. What are your priorities and How can I help? Do that 52 times per year with each person.

„If you can't check-in with your people a few minutes a week than you either have too many people or you shouldn’t be a team leader." Marcus Buckingham
Marcus Buckingham

European Business: You also stated that we should weave love into our work. Can you explain to our readers, how this can be done most effectively and effortlessly?

Marcus Buckingham: The point in chapter 8 is that we should not strive for work-life balance. For two reasons: Firstly, finding that perfect balance is incredibly difficult and secondly: even if we do that, if we ever find that perfect balance, we would be saying to everybody: I got it all in balance, so don’t move and of course, that’s a very pathetic state. Nothing in balance is healthy, we think balance equals healthiness but it isn´t. What´s healthy, is movement and life is movement. You are moving through the day. Nothing is ever in balance.

What we know is that the most successful people do that by not trying to balance work and life. In fact, they realize that work is simply a part of life. Like being a parent is a part of life or being a friend. They simply look at the two categories of what you love and what you loathe and they skew their life towards situations or activities or contacts that they love. The simplest way to do that is: take a blank pad with you for around a week and draw a line in the middle of the pad and write “loved it” on top of one column and “loathed it” on the top of the other column.

Anytime you find yourself looking forward to doing something or anytime you find yourself doing something and time flies by or you are just done with something and would love to do it again and don’t feel drained, you are lifted up, any moment, any situation that makes you feel good you should scribble that down in the “loved it” column.

And anytime you see the opposite of these feelings and you see activities you keep procrastinating, putting off or when you are doing it time seems to drag on or after you are done with it you feel “Oh, thank god, its over”, scribble it down in the “loathed it” column. Doing “loved it” and “loathed it” is a beautiful way to start taking control of your life.

Interview: Vera Gaidies | Photos: Harvard Business Review Press