What Kind of Company Culture Do You Have: Recognition or Repression?

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I write often about company culture, especially about the importance of creating a culture of recognition in which employees choose to engage.

But let’s take a step back. How many kinds of company cultures are there? One could argue the number of culture types is infinite.

I don’t. I think there are only two:

  1. A culture of repression – This type of culture can take many forms, but the key characteristics include employees who are more focused on advancing their own goals/agendas than the company’s, an air of “why give my opinion because nobody will listen anyway,” and general fear (of management, of bully colleagues, of “sticking your neck out.”)
  2. A culture of recognition – In a recognition culture, on the other hand, employees both clearly understand the company’s goals and focus their work to achieve them. Because they’re encouraged to do so, employees far more readily share ideas and innovative thinking, and work in an environment of mutual support.

A culture where people can focus on the job

Mike Sheehan, chief executive of the ad agency Hill Holliday, described these two types of cultures in his own way in a recent New York Times Corner Office” column:

“I think there are two kinds of cultures, and then you can subdivide them after that. One is based on a foundation of insecurity, fear and chaos, and one is based on a firm platform where people come to work and they’re worried about the work itself. They’re not worried about things that surround the work and are not important. I’ve tried to make Hill Holliday that kind of environment, where people come to work and they’re not worried about their peers shooting them. If leadership doesn’t provide a forum for that kind of behavior, it dies quickly. People forget about it and they just focus on doing their job.

“You don’t want a conflict-free zone, but you want the conflicts to be about the work itself. Sometimes you have to dig a little bit and talk to people, but if you find out the conflict is about the work, then that’s good, because it’s healthy. I think that in a lot of workplaces it’s the opposite — people have to come to a consensus on the work, and so all the conflicts are political.

“That’s one thing that the founder, Jack [Connors], instilled in the culture. It’s not a democracy. You’ve got to make tough decisions and then you’ve got to move on. ‘The enemy’s out there,’ he would say. ‘The enemy’s not in these four walls.’”

Indeed, that last line is the rub. If you have a culture of recognition, you must be willing to protect it by identifying “enemies” that slip inside your four walls and removing them.

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What kind of culture do you have?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.


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