Over a thousand Indian start-ups were launched in the year 2017. Just like newborn babies, these companies took birth with a baton to carve a future better than today. As with a newborn, people are more focused on what new and innovative these organizations can do. What remains far from the spotlight is what the organization is becoming, what culture is its driving force, or what atmosphere the company encourages and breeds. While the parents of these organizations do care about these aspects, they too are preoccupied with feeding, cleaning, and teaching the organization to stand up on its feet. Molding the personality of the organization is a long shot from the initial standpoint. Is it even necessary this early on?
When spring was turning into a pleasant summer in Moravia, a son was born to a Jewish merchant, Jacob Freud. This child would soon embark upon his journey to become the father of psychoanalysis and lay the foundations of psychology and psychopathology as we know them today. The field of psychoanalysis viewed human personality as a combination of desires (forming the Id), morality (forming the Superego), and the balancing factor (called the Ego). While the two opposing forces of desires and morality struggle on the inside, the personality we see is the ego’s compromise to accommodate the two forces. But this wasn’t where Freud’s theory made a major impact; it was in the conception of the id.
While laying the bedrock of a company, one often seems to forget that a lot of what is laid in the first few years also ends up becomes a part of the bedrock. The Id, according to Freud, is formed during early childhood and sits at the core of everyone’s personality for the rest of their lives, far out of the reach of conscious introspection. This made mental sickness something that developed early on in life and was almost impossible to change. Similarly, the callousness of the starting few years ends up in a disastrous split in what an organization desires to be and the façade it wishes the world to see, ultimately affecting the output. Accumulating an unhealthy unconscious memory of bad practices, employee dissatisfaction, and dubious results, companies start blaming the market’s competitiveness, the workforce’s lack of commitment, and fail to introspect what went wrong. Farther away from their intellectual reach is the fact that what went wrong, went wrong right in the very beginning.
Another aspect that affects the culture of the organization is the influences it is subjected to. As a child grows, his/her personality is subject to being shaped by an ever-growing circle of non-parents. Similarly, an organization starts with the purest of influences, founders who are driven to make an idea work, and employees who are with the company for meaningful experiences instead of a big paycheck. As a company grows, things change. The more a company expands, the more this newborn starts socializing with people who aren’t as driven or protective as the parents. The difference between raising a child and a company is that when children begin to socialize with strangers, these people aren’t new to the parents. The acquaintances, the school, and the neighborhood are chosen by the parents and hence carefully vetted. With an organization, the moment the expansion begins, a completely unfiltered influence is allowed to contribute to the development of the company. These foreign influences come in with their own conceptions of what the organization should be. Without careful molding, there is a greater risk of internal disarray and faulty orientation. However, even if we carefully mold the culture, it still goes through its own “pre-teen tantrums”. As the organization grows, there are struggles and challenges. The culture can seem like a burden, too stubborn given the age of the organization.
How then to mold a healthy culture?
The answer is simple, exactly how you would raise a healthy child. Admittedly, this is probably the hardest thing to do. Let’s go through it step by step.
Firstly, you start right in the beginning. This entails that as the vision of the organization is being incubated, a blueprint of the culture should also be outlined. A common misconception is that the culture creates itself through the leadership, the employees, etc. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. This isn’t akin to the hen-egg analogy. You can’t make a stable house on a base of sand. The culture has to be curated in the very beginning for everything else to go smoothly.
Second, raise an adaptive and aligned culture. The culture of an organization is like the organization’s liver. All the blood of the organization goes through it multiple times. It should be adaptive to all the aspects of the organization. Adaptive, not gullible. The culture of an organization, like the personality of a person, is largely constant. This, however, also mandates that the culture is aligned to the vision the company has. In this sense, the culture is a seed you sow right in the very beginning, and as and when you grow, the branches and roots reach out to support you.
Third, vet the caregivers cautiously. Employees eventually start curating the culture on your behalf, choose them wisely. Apart from making the right choices, the employees also need to be nurtured to value and curate the culture in the vision of the company’s goals.
Lastly, a bad personality makes an individual dysfunctional. Similarly, a bad culture will make the organization dysfunctional. Thereby, safeguards in terms of processes and policies should be in place to defend the core of the company. The culture may seem too stringent and high-maintenance at times. These are the moments that require patience and persistence on the part of the caregivers. However, once the culture has stabilized, it becomes self-nurturing and self-growing and will in turn become the guiding light in times of turmoil.
But what if the damage is already done?
What if the bedrock is faulty right at the bottom? Can you rip open the organization to start again? Not exactly. Freud fails us here as his views were edging onto a pessimistic view of mankind. In comes Abraham Maslow. Maslow gave to psychology what Barack Obama gave to Americans in 2008, hope. Hope that change was possible and hope that change was right around the corner. Maslow arranged a hierarchy of needs and explained how you can gradually replenish growth to an individual by first catering to their basic needs, then their psychological needs, and finally their need for self-fulfillment. His theory explained how a man who doesn’t have food to eat won’t be able to realize his intellectual potential. At an organizational level, this hierarchy goes from basic needs like communication and employee wellbeing, growing on which traits of innovation and leadership development can be founded. And thereby, even though there’s trouble with the bedrock, we can start watering our culture diligently without ripping anything apart. Change takes time in this case, but as is the case with the Chinese bamboo, the benefits are worth the effort put in.