Choosing sides

The difference between cool and culture

Let me start by saying this: I am not against foosball tables, videos games or espresso machines. But, here’s the real truth: No amount of cool things you can offer will get a true buy-in from your team and bring them together. It makes me think of the stereotypical absent father who shows up every few weeks with some new toys to win the kids over. We all know how that story ends. 

So, how do you stop this race to the bottom? I believe it helps to think about culture differently. So let’s start there.

Conversations create culture
Strong work culture is not new. Companies have been connecting with their employees and generating true buy-in for centuries, so don’t believe the notion that modern toys are the catalyst for culture. In fact, true culture begins with conversations. The perks are just a band-aid.

It is best to think of it as a progression. You need to know your employees—their hopes, fears, and living situations—before you book that company trip to the ballpark. Otherwise, they will see your efforts for what they truly are: Simply trying to check the “culture box” without actually putting in any effort.

I will offer up some advice below on how to have meaningful conversations with your employees, but first you need to understand that these conversations are essential. If you are an owner, have these conversations with your team. You must take time to understand the people you lead, and it will pay off at every imaginable level.

In business, nothing is more valuable than your people and this realization is the foundation of strong culture.

You must give something up
Going back to my “absent father” analogy, you generally see the situation resolved when the father realizes his kids do not want toys, they want him. As a business leader, it is incredibly important to remember this. While you may not necessarily be a father-figure, you are their protector and provider in many ways when it comes to their work life. Your team needs to know that you actually care about them as people, and generally that involves some sort of sacrifice.

And, I do not necessarily mean capital-S sacrifice; I am talking about the daily stuff. Instead of eating lunch at your desk or sneaking away for takeout, try eating lunch with your team. Ask about their kids. Stay a few minutes after-hours to hang out and get to know them. There is no better way to instill faith in your team than by giving them some of your time and attention.

It’s a two-way street
Once you begin to make these little sacrifices and take the time to get to know your team, you will make a powerful realization: It is not actually a sacrifice at all. Company leadership, when isolated, can trick themselves into thinking that only they can offer advice, wisdom, and realizations to their team members. But, meaningful conversations are meaningful because they’re a two-way street.

Once you approach these conversations with humility, you will begin to learn more than you ever thought you could about company culture. You will learn what people really want out of their jobs. You will learn what people really do not want out of their jobs. Both parties involved will begin to hone in on their purpose by sharing stories with each other. Incredible things begin to happen when people approach each other from a level playing field.

Here’s where to start:

  • Expect a mutually beneficial learning opportunity. As I mentioned, meaningful conversations are a two-way street. Approach them with humility, expecting to learn something valuable, and you will be off to a good start.
  • Be honest and vulnerable. Your team will feel more comfortable being honest if you are willing to let down your guard and open up. You need to be willing to show that you are human if you are going to have a human conversation.
  • Don’t try to solve problems. Sometimes people just need to talk, and they will see a conversation as disingenuous if you are simply trying to address problems right away. Jot down any issues, but save the advice and lessons for later.
  • Listen more. Speaking of which, don’t use this as an opportunity to spout wisdom or talk about yourself. Listen to your team and ask them questions about what they’re saying.
  • No electronic devices. This is a simple step you can take to keep distractions at a minimum and show that everyone can have real, human interaction.

In business, nothing is more valuable than your people and this realization is the foundation of strong culture. More than anything, let them know that you’re in this together and they’ll come to work with a new-found purpose ready to give their all. Keep all of the office perks and fun in their rightful place, as icing on the cake.


Aaron McClung is the founder and principal of AM, a full-service branding, marketing, and technology firm in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Its proprietary Ovrflo™ process helps businesses discover and apply their purpose and vision.