Is it possible to re-engineer a sick company culture?

A company overhauled its culture – and then did it again, finding that the corporate ecosystem is more complicated than it seems.

A healthy company culture can be a draw to an employee choosing a place to work. It’s also essential to how a workplace functions – Harvard Business Review recently wrote that culture influences how people spoke up – or if they didn’t.

A bad culture can make the news – for example, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank recently promised to improve his company’s culture after a Wall Street Journal article chronicled strip-club visits and inappropriate treatment of women at the company. But what happens when a once-happy workplace culture becomes negative?

C-Space is a Boston-based company with several international offices that works directly with consumers to “co-create” new products for brands like Heinz, Bank of America, and Samsung. When things went wrong with their company culture, reports Quartz at Work, they decided to “audit” it, coming out on the other side with a series of slogans to live and work by. And when that went wrong? They went back to the drawing board and did it again, proving that culture is continuously in flux.

Starting out as a smaller startup called Promise, they were acquired by an advertising firm Omnicom in 2012, and then merged with another company, becoming C-Space. That’s when things started to feel wrong. By the end of 2015, 30% of the staff had left, and just 56%  said they felt proud to work there.

Design for living

The first four set of slogans that the culture committee – employees from different areas and levels of the company – came up with included:

  • “Only accept awesome.”
  • “I’ve got this.”

On the surface, the meaning was clear. “Only accept awesome” meant to do your best work, and accept only the best from your coworkers. “I’ve got this” meant taking ownership of a task or project.

Yet, after about a year, employees began to embrace the mantras a little too much – to the point that they became corrupted. “Only accept awesome” had created a new culture of overwork. “I’ve got this” led to tasks going to the wrong people as over-eager employees wanted to be seen performing well.

Do-over

The culture had changed, but not for the better. So C-Space’s “culture committee” brainstormed two more slogans:

  • “Open up and listen.”
  • “Tell it like it is.”

While two sentences can’t change a group of people, they did reportedly help. If anything, the C-Space experiment shows how delicate company culture is, and how difficult it is to engineer a group of people working together. Perhaps the best solution is not changing course completely, but the Japanese workplace concept of kaizen, which means, simply, “continuous improvement.”