Is Your Company Culture Challenging or Threatening?

So often, corporate culture is synonymous with competition and an every-person-for-himself mindset. The need to excel and exceed expectations is part of what makes a career interesting and fulfilling, but mixed with the wrong culture it can cause stress and isolation. What does it take to get the good without the bad? How can companies create a stimulating, high-performing environment?

By building a culture based on challenges, rather than threats.

Picture this: You’re working at a company whose culture is all about making the sale. Your performance reviews are centered around numbers, and your relationships with your coworkers are focused solely on who is performing the best. You get fulfillment from achieving your quarterly goals, but that satisfaction is also tainted with relief. Relief that you made the cut and are safe until the next round. It’s difficult to support your coworkers when you feel like their success could lead to your dismissal. It’s difficult to confide in your managers when you don’t want to seem like a weak link. And it’s difficult to fully support your customers when they are treated as mere stepping stones to your goal rather than actual clients.

This is a culture based on threats. Top performance is encouraged and rewarded, but only because employees feel like their jobs depend on it. This breeds a culture of over-competitiveness where relationships are disingenuous and everyone is focused on themselves rather than the big picture.

Now imagine an alternative: You’re working at a company whose culture is about personal development and growth. Your performance reviews are centered around ways you’ve improved as a professional over the last quarter and are filled with new, larger goals for you to tackle next quarter. Your relationships with coworkers are built on shared experiences and a desire to help your company reach new heights. You get fulfillment from achieving your goals because they align with your own personal development and push you to be a better version of yourself. You find it easy to support your coworkers because you know that there is room for all of you to be the best. It’s easy to confide in your managers because you know that they want to see you succeed. And it’s easy to fully support your customers because they have more than a numerical value to you; you care about the relationships you’ve cultivated.

This is a culture based on challenges. Top performance is encouraged and rewarded, because this company recognizes when workers grow, so does the business. This breeds a culture of engagement, passion and innovation where relationships are real and valuable, and everyone is in tune to how their work fits into the bigger picture.

It shouldn’t be hard to judge which scenario sounds like a better business.

The cynics reading this might scoff at the idea that a culture without any sense of precariousness can keep people motivated indefinitely. And they’re right. For a culture built on challenges to succeed, there has to be a key component: the unattainable challenge.

The unattainable challenge is a north star that keeps employees focused and driven. It’s making one million annual sales and setting next year’s goal to be two million, rather than a million and one. It might be near impossible to reach, but it’s the spark that keeps the engine going. It’s the “this is crazy, but what if we can pull it off” feeling that pushes everyone in the company to work harder, think smarter and dream bigger. It keeps the big picture in peripheral view, lifting employees out of their everyday routine to see how everything they do is key to reaching the stars. When you work towards unattainable challenges, you set yourself up to deliver above and beyond reasonable expectations.  But it only works in an environment where failure is considered valuable learning. Facebook’s corporate motto, “Fail early, fail often” is a great example of a culture driving towards unattainable challenges.

Key Takeaways:

  • Build a culture based on challenges, rather than threats to boost team performance.
  • In a threatening working environment, individual performance is encouraged and rewarded based on your employees’ fear that they will be dismissed if they don’t keep up.
  • In a challenging working environment, individual performance is encouraged and rewarded based on what we think the business potential is, not what the budget says.
  • For a challenging environment to succeed indefinitely, you must define the unattainable challenge, which is essentially a goal that the team aspires to, understanding they may not get there in the short-term.

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