Create a culture of intimacy

My latest Audible ‘read’ is Small Giants by Bo Birlingham. It’s a study of companies that choose to be great instead of big. Now, everything’s relative and many of the companies he studies are pretty big, but the point is they don’t focus on growth at all costs. I love books like this because they dig deep into what makes companies tick and no surprise, culture is usually in there somewhere.

The authors found that there are three broad imperatives that the companies they studied all pursued in different ways and with different means. They centre around creating what Burlingham calls a ‘culture of intimacy’ – where employees know that the company cares about them and they, in turn, care about the success of the company.

The three imperatives are:

  1. Articulating, demonstrating and imbuing the company with a higher purpose. The purpose needs to be based on what the company does, the way it does it, the good that comes from doing it or most commonly an element of all three. It’s more than a mission statement – it needs to form part of the fabric of the company by continually reminding employees why their work matters and why they should care about giving their best effort.
  2. Reminding their people in unexpected ways how much the company cares about them. The key word is ‘unexpected’. There are many standard tools available to companies who want to show appreciation but they are all expected and can be taken for granted – salary, performance awards, flexible schedules, benefits packages, promotions. The companies Burlingham studied use all these tools but they went further in unexpected ways. The key is to understand and support what makes each employee different. It might be extra flexibility to look after sick relatives, time off to travel, funding an acting class – the list is endless because your employees are all unique.
  3. The way that employees feel about each other, the mutual trust and respect they share. Do they enjoy working with each other and will they go out of their way to resolve conflicts? At first glance it feels like a company will have little control over this but you certainly know when you walk into a workpace where the employees clearly get on with each other. Burlingham found that their sample companies worked hard to nurture collegiality. Leaders opened up to their team members and showed a genuine interest in the lives of the people that work for them. It’s sometimes described as being like a family but I prefer to think of it as being like a high performing sports team – you come together to do a job but while you are together everyone knows you’ve got their backs.

As ever with all things cultural – these sound simple but they are definitely not easy to achieve. The good new is that after initial thought, all three imperatives depend on small, incremental, habit forming steps. Every one in an organisation needs to play their part. It’s the job of the leadership to act as conductors, keeping the orchestra in sync and moving forward at the right pace.