How to change your company culture: Jeff Bezos says you don’t; here’s what we say

After getting in trouble in 2015 for the overly intense Amazonian workplace culture, Jeff Bezos composed the following words. These appeared in his annual letter to investors:

A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. (December 31, 2015)

What we would like to say is, “Dear Jeff, We agree with you, but we also disagree with you.”

Culture is complex and enduring and yet it is ever evolving. We are human beings, and that means we are agentive (we communicate ideas and we make things happen), we are able to effect cultural shifts.

So Bezos apologized, but we are going to play anthropologists. Culture is, at its simplest, a shared systems of understandings. As Clifford Geertz so eloquently wrote in 1973, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be these webs.” Which is to say: we are our own cultural constructors.

Now let’s say you want to intentionality morph your workplace culture. Perhaps, you have only recently launched, or you had a thousand other things to invest in until now, or the organically formed culture of your own workplace just isn’t what you assumed it would be. Regardless, the question becomes: just how does one effect cultural shift?

1. Consider the built environment: It’s important to remember that who we are and what we believe is reinforced by the spaces that influence our daily lives. What does your office look like? What kind of formal and informal spaces are in place for employees? Do you want a causal culture but work in a formal office space? Make a change.

2. Remember democracy is clunky, but democracy is freedom: Just ask Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who penned the book “Development as Freedom”. He will tell you that you don’t need more meetings, and you don’t need anti-hierarchical orders, but you do need intentional strategies for  imparting senses of empowerment to those who fill your workplace. Because just as democracy cured famine in Sen’s findings, democratic management inspires passion and long term commitment in our findings.

3. Develop rituals and unique beliefs, develop company lore: We devour stories, seek out senses of timelessness, and use ritual and belief in our constructions of belonging and interconnectivity. In fact, old school anthropologists assumed the function of ritual to be the gluing together of people. So why not invest in your own narratives and rituals, the kinds of narratives and rituals that provide strong senses of identity and belonging (in time and space) to your employees?

We agree with Bezos, your employees will always build your company culture, that’s how culture works. But you can guide them, through their environment, through your trickle down management style, and through the narrative you create and uphold.

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