Driving Workplace Culture: Is Yours All About “Me” or “We?”

Photo by istockphoto.com

Years ago, NASA ran a series of experiments on the best way to make decisions.

They used a series of survival scenarios, and asked individuals in a large group to solve the challenge and rate themselves. Then they asked small groups to solve the problems and rate their performance.

About 98 percent of the time, the groups received better scores than the individuals.

Is it about individuals, or groups?

Fast forward to today’s business challenges where we face the same question — do individuals or groups make the best decisions?

Today’s market requires that our organizations are agile, their people are able to work across boundaries of all kinds, and they must be able to collaborate to get things done. Today, more than ever before, it’s about “We,” not “Me.” The rugged individualist and the sharks cannot survive in a world where we are increasingly interdependent.

So, what kind of organization can survive complexity, volatility, and uncertainty on a global scale? I believe it is what we can call the “WE” organization.

Elements of the WE organization

What does the WE organization look like?

  • Its culture is based on principles, not power or politics.
  • Building and maintaining high trust is central to how people work together — not fear.
  • There is a clear strategic direction.
  • Strategic decisions are made by consensus among the senior leadership.
  • Leadership is situational rather than positional. Everyone has the capacity to lead at any given point in time based on their knowledge and skills.
  • Individuals subordinate their personal self-interest to the good of the whole.
  • The workforce owns the work processes.
  • There is transparency in how the organization operates. Secrecy creates distrust.
  • The organization’s design is flat and team-based; gone are the days of the pyramid.
  • People work collaboratively for the good of the whole. Independent achievers need not apply.
  • Accountability happens at the level of self, within teams, and based on results.
  • People are rewarded in part for achievement of organization goals, in part for their team work, and in part for their personal development and contribution to the whole.

Attracting new and future generations

Most organizations don’t look like this today. But there are examples of businesses moving in this direction.

The WE organization is the future. It is the kind of culture that will attract and retain Millenials as well as future generations. It is agile, flexible, innovative, collaborative, and self-sustaining.

Article Continues Below

The way to begin this journey is to assess where you are, e.g. is “me” more important than “we”? Do politics run rife? Do silos prevail? Is there hoarding of information? Is individual performance more important than team and organizational performance?

After assessment comes a conscious choice to shift the culture. Then a strategy for culture shift is created, the workforce is engaged, and the change process begins.

A journey needed to thrive

It’s a journey worth taking if we not only want to survive, but thrive.

Do you agree with the need for a WE organization? Are there other characteristics of a WE organization? What other ideas or feedback do you have?

This post originally appeared on CultureUniversity.com

Dr. Edward Marshall is a strategic consultant who works as a trusted adviser to senior leadership. He assesses business and organizational needs, and facilitates initiatives that result in high trust cultures, bottom line results, and sustainable growth. Dr. Marshall is the President of The Marshall Group, a past Senior Partner with the Center for Creative Leadership, and a founding faculty member at CultureUniversity.com. He is the author of two best-selling business books: Transforming the Way We Work: the Power of the Collaborative Workplace, and Building Trust at the Speed of Change.


8 Comments on “Driving Workplace Culture: Is Yours All About “Me” or “We?”

  1. This is a worthy article that paints an aspirational picture of future organizations. My experience indicates that cultures like you’ve described above require exceptionally rigorous care and feeding. Hyper-growth companies often create silos unwittingly and it’s easy for people who are creating that growth to lose sight of the organization’s founding principles when they’re rewarded, justly, for that growth. Also, let’s not kid ourselves: there is ALWAYS a pyramid and there always will be. Given that, there will always be greater supply of people with ambition for power than there will be demand for it. This needn’t be the death knell for cultures such as you’ve described, but it does indicate that they need intense focus, perhaps most particularly in hiring decisions.

    Thanks for a quality article.

    1. Jonathan, thank you for your thoughtful response. Just a thought on the permanence of pyramids–what I have learned from working in a virtual and networked environment is that not only are the walls coming down as we work globally, but technology is opening up new ways of working horizontally that do not require hierarchy. The 20th Century, factory-based, specialization of labor, etc. hierarchical model is no longer relevant or functional in the networked, nodal, virtual, and global environment we all live in. Trying to maintain this type of structure in a “we” world results in serious dysfunction in the organization, which costs them morale, profitability, and sustainability. So while hierarchy still exists, and in some instances (like the military) is needed, we are witnessing the withering away of that form of leadership. It’s being “forced” to change by globalization, technology, millenials who won’t work in that type of culture, and the reality of the virtual organization. I also see the matrixed organization going the same way. Trust-based, “we” oriented, networked, problem and customer-centric organizations are the wave of the future.

      Again, thank you for your thoughtful piece. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

      1. Hi Edward – thanks for your comments. I really did enjoy the article and I think we’re probably pretty closely aligned. I agree that the networked nature of organizations, not to mention the kind of work most knowledge orgs do, renders traditional org design ineffective at best, if not irrelevant.

        That said, there’s still a hierarchy and there’s still a pyramid. There might be far fewer management layers (thank goodness, in most cases!) but there will still be a small number of people in a firm who hold more position power than the average worker. You’re correct about ways of working – senior folks will work shoulder-to-shoulder, operating as teammates with others, and that’s a great thing – but that won’t create a workplace where we are all truly equals.

        That’s what brings me to what I think is the salient point: I believe cultures like you describe are possible, and I’d love to see them emerging everywhere. But because there will always be some people who have more power than others, these cultures will always require a lot of care and feeding to ensure that they remain flexible in the face of the inevitable human tensions that arise. It only takes one a-hole in a senior position to do tremendous damage to a culture like you’ve described, which is why I offer that hiring decisions particularly need to be made with exceptional care.

        Anyway, I hope that helps clarify a bit. I’m very much on your side in this thing… and I think we can’t ever take a great organizational culture for granted at all.

        1. Hierarchy is often a response to size. A way to create more of a ‘we’ culture in organisations is to reduce the size of the units that make up that organisation. Smaller units need less hierarchy and give more autonomy and ownership as well as learning and development opportunities for individuals. Reducing the size of the units of performance may cost in terms of ‘scale’ and ‘best practice’ but will make a ‘we’ culture more realistic with corresponding rewards for all involved.

  2. Great points on the “WE” and really like that list … as the saying goes…sometimes it takes an army…and I’ll add one who is marching toward achieving the same mission.

    1. Scott, thank you for your comment. Yes, it takes armies, villages, and all of us to do problem-solving. I’d like to hear about your experience in trying to achieve this mission.


  3. The We organization is the ideal state. It is unattainable unless the organization becomes a Me organization where Me isn’t a select few but every individual. What’s in it for the guy standing at a machine all day long and has to rush to the break room to wolf down a peanut butter sandwich? Thirty minutes after he resumes work after lunch the big shots arrive back from lunch carrying their favorite beverages. The big shots always tell the machine operator there is no I in team.
    I know of a couple unique reasons to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” One reason to embrace the We organization is for your children. The We organization is not going away. Japan excels at the We organization. To compete, we must continue the journey. Your children we be under more pressure than you to collaborate. The best training for them is now. Telling the stories of collaboration and innovation from work will teach them to be the leader who goes into the break room and has a peanut butter sandwich with the machine operators.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *