#BeBetter Podcast with Michael Kurland

Four Ingredients to a Lasting Company Culture

Cultivate a culture of empathy, rust and agility.

Dr. Brower is a work environment sociologist and a Principal with the Applied Research + Consulting group at Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations which focuses on work-life fulfillment. Tracy studies how people and companies can create fulfillment, meaning, and vitality in their work. She reflects this research in her writing in Forbes.com and Fast Company as well as in her personal blog, Fruition, and in her professional blog.

Portrait of Dr. Tracy Brower

“Company culture is the one thing that others can’t copy.”

—Dr. Tracy Brower


17. Four Ingredients to a Lasting Company Culture

Key Takeaways

  • Your company’s culture is your competitive differentiator.
  • Culture provides employees with a common social identity that gives them a sense of belonging and desire to perform well.
  • Selecting, promote, and recognize leaders who are modeling the behaviors that matter most in the culture.

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Dr. Tracy Brower is a PhD sociologist and a principal with Steelcase’s Applied Research + Consulting group. Tracy studies the sociology of work and the changing nature of work, workers and workplace. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations and a contributor to Forbes.com and Fast Company. Tracy is an award-winning speaker and has over 25 years of experience working with global clients to achieve business results. Tracy is an executive advisor to Coda Societies and to the MSU Master Industrial Mathematics Program. Tracy’s work has been featured in TEDx, The Wall Street Journal, Work-Life Balance in the 21st Century (book), Globe and Mail (Canada), InsideHR (Australia), HR Director (UK), T3N (Germany), Real Estate Review Journal, Fortune.com, Inc. Magazine, and more. Tracy holds a PhD in Sociology, a Master of Management in Organizational Culture, and a Master of Corporate Real Estate with a workplace specialization.

“Better company cultures tend to support better attraction and retention and engagement and development.”

—Dr. Tracy Brower


Podcast Transcription

Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group. Welcome to the #BeBetter Podcast. To me, our company’s mantra to “Be Better” is more than a tagline; it’s a culture that permeates our organization, propelling our team to Be Better to each other, our customers and our communities as well as to ourselves. Each week on the #BeBetter podcast, I interview leaders who authentically exemplify how they are being better in their professional and personal lives.

Today’s podcast is dedicated to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County. This long-standing non-profit is committed to matching youth facing adversity with a caring mentor. Through these strong and enduring, professionally supported relationships, a child’s potential is ignited. Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters at https://www.ocbigs.org/.

Michael Kurland (00:02):

Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland. I’m super excited today. We have Tracy Brower, PhD sociologist on the show. Tracy, why don’t you tell the audience a little bit more about yourself and what you do?

Dr. Tracy Brower (00:21):

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it, Michael.  I study work, workers and workplace, and I get to do that in a role as Principal of the Applied Research and Consulting team at Steelcase. I get to be a contributor with words.com and Fast Company. I wrote a book called “Bring Work to Life,” which is about alternative ways to think about work-life balance.

Michael Kurland (00:47):

All that’s great. That’s especially in current times that we’re in – alternative work-life balance. We were talking last week with one of our guests and he said, work life integration, which I thought was interesting, but that’s like the new norm, right? There is no work-life balance. When me and you were talking prior, we were talking about how everyone’s going to start having this burnout because there is no separation.

Dr. Tracy Brower (01:11):

Right. Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s what I talk about in my book, actually. That it’s not about balance. There are alternative ways to think about it like navigating and integrating. Absolutely. We used to say, we want to keep work away and keep work at work and create space for personal. Now people are saying, I’ve got a lot of personal going on and this is lovely, but I’d love a little boundaries. So it’s different people have different right answers in terms of how they balance and how they navigate and how they integrate. So that’s a really positive thing to have a little separation and a boundary that works for you.

Michael Kurland (01:45):

I can totally relate to that. We were talking before we got on air here and I was telling you how your Forbes article about sharing a small space while you work from home was pretty much the hidden camera look into my life with my 750 square foot apartment and my fiancé, my 17 pound dog. So I can totally relate to wanting to get a little separation from my life and maybe a little bit more work, you know?

Dr. Tracy Brower (02:12):

Exactly. It’s a huge challenge. We crave it and we love our people, but our circles have gotten really small. We appreciate and love those circles, but we also want to stay connected to those broader networks. That’s why work is so important. You know, it gives us that outlet. It gives us those additional people that we’re connecting with as well.

Michael Kurland (02:33):

I can tell you I never thought I would say this ever, but I’m going to go on the record right now and tell you, I miss my commute. It was only 30 minutes. It wasn’t LA traffic, like everyone thinks, because I have a reverse commute, but it was about 30 minutes each way. It gave me that time to decompress from the day and prepare for whatever the night was going to bring or vice versa, decompress from my morning routine or amp myself up from my morning routine and get ready for the work.

Dr. Tracy Brower (03:05):

Completely. It’s that buffer, right? We don’t get that buffer anymore. We’ve heard so many people say that. That it’s the commute or it’s that little bit of walk time or other kinds of drive time that are so helpful. Some people say, gosh, I’m not learning as much. I’m not reading as much. I’m not listening to my audible during my commute. So it makes a really big difference. I think the other thing that’s super interesting about it is that it’s that routine that gives us an orientation, right? It’s not all the same every day in the same place with the intensity of our laptop in front of us. We get this difference in this variety and the stimulation when we’re getting out of the house. That actually helps us remember things better and be oriented to remember what day it is.

Michael Kurland (03:49):

You’re touching on some great things here, but I want to dive right into the questions. First one I’ve got for you since we are doing a company culture in a remote workplace for this season. Why do you think a solid company culture is so important?

Dr. Tracy Brower (04:05):

I think company culture is absolutely the accelerant, differentiator for organizations, that competitive advantage. If we think about organizations, company culture is the one thing that others can’t copy. They can try to grab your customers or copy your marketing formula or grab your IP. But company culture is really hard to replicate. That’s a really big deal. It’s also something that can accelerate and provide fuel for innovation in the company. Culture really creates the opportunity for a lot of collaboration. Better company cultures tend to support better attraction and retention and engagement and development. So company culture is so important for companies. It’s also super important for people, right? Like the right answer is that match between me and my company culture. When we have that great match, when you can find that match, it’s so much better in terms of quality of life and feeling like you can contribute and bring your whole self to work. You get that energy factor that comes from working in a great culture. So lots of reasons that culture is important.

Michael Kurland (05:19):

I mean, you touched on a few very important ones to Branded Group, and I’m probably going to sound like a broken record to the audience out there. But retention rate is so important then. That’s when we set out to put our culture on the map and make it one of our focal points of the company, it was with the retention rate in mind. It was not just because we had been employees at companies where the retention rate wasn’t great. We weren’t feeling as connected to the company as we would have liked, but it was also for a selfish motivation. Our customers really get a lot out of having the same employee to deal with on their teams. When they can talk to Lisa every day and Lisa gets to know Billy as our client, and then they can form this relationship.

Michael Kurland (06:16):

Because that’s what it is. It’s not this turnover or we’ve shuffling teams around because of things. So I really appreciate you bringing up the retention rate. The other thing is that you said is no culture is the same. So what that made me think of is you could hire me, I could hire you to come work for me at Branded Group. But if you get hired by someone else to go work at another place, that would be a completely different culture, even for the same people, but a different company. Right? You need all three things and those three things are all unique, kind of like a snowflake, right?

Dr. Tracy Brower (06:53):

Exactly, exactly. That’s such a big deal. You’ve got to feel that it was really interesting. I was just doing some additional research on community and belonging doesn’t just come from being together with a group. That’s part of it, but you need that common social identity. That’s one of the things that culture does as well is it gives us that common social identity that bonds us gives us a sense of belonging and gives us a sense of wanting to perform well, because we’re part of that group. We don’t want to let other people down. We have that social reciprocity factor that plays in.

Michael Kurland (07:27):

You just jogged my memory. I read a book a couple of months ago. Well, I bought the book. We talked about that before, like people not getting their Audible and I actually get more time with Audible now, because I make it a daily routine to walk the dog. I read a book a couple of months ago and it was called “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger. Have you read that?

Dr. Tracy Brower (07:50):

Yes, I’ve seen it. I haven’t read it. I’ve seen it.

Michael Kurland (07:53):

It’s what you’re talking about. It’s just basically how people are tribal, communal. That’s ingrained in our DNA and how we do better, even in the worst scenarios when we’re in a community and in a tribe. Tribes usually consists of a hundred or less people. Right? So it was very interesting to me. It would talk a lot about how in World War II, when England was getting bombed and a lot of the people were in these bomb shelters together. They had to spend a couple of days or weeks in these bomb shelters while they were getting attacked. These people actually were happier. Once everything had settled down and they went their separate ways, when the people got back together to revisit and talk about their experiences, you’d think it was the worst experience of my life. We were bombed and we were in the shelter, but they said the sense of community and the way that people responded and reacted was some of the best of their lives. That just shows what you’re saying there. So that’s very interesting.

Dr. Tracy Brower (09:01):

I love that. That’s really good. Sociologically speaking, one of the number one ways that we band with other people as they’re going through really, really hard times, and this is a great example of that pressure task, right? This is really tough, but maybe on the other side of it, we’ll have these amazing bonds and ultimately it will give us a greater sense of happiness and resilience and all that kind of thing after we come through it.

Michael Kurland (09:23):

I sure hope so. We’re in month nine now or maybe month eight and I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with the pandemic. But I think to your point, it’s made my fiancé and mine’s relationship better. We’ve learned how to communicate better and we’re in this small confined space and we’ve learned how to work with each other better and respect each other’s boundaries or how small they may be. This is all fascinating to me. On to the next question. How can companies develop a company culture? What are your thoughts on what the best way to develop company culture remotely and when things normalize?

Dr. Tracy Brower (10:11):

I think this is so interesting because there are so many variables. In the olden days we had this this thing that was part of like a stereo system called the graphic equalizer and it had all of these little dials and buttons and you could have this almost infinite array of different ways to adjust the sound and just the right way. I think culture is like that too. There are so many variables that we’re always adjusting, but I think there are some really, really critical ones. One, I think it’s super interesting is a common language. Like a lot of times the language of business is financial. That was a really big investment we made in that project. Or, wow, I’m not sure the ROI of that meeting or boy that costs me a lot.

Dr. Tracy Brower (10:58):

We use that in our language and I think we want to use culture more in our language. Talk about what are our norms, what are our assumptions? What are our values? The more we can raise that above water level, if we’re thinking about an iceberg, for example, if we raise that above water level and talk more explicitly about culture and expectations and values, that is a really big deal in terms of developing culture. I think another thing is to really look for leaders that will model culture. Leaders are such a critical element, right? The paradox is that cultures outlast individual leaders and leaders shaped subcultures, and both of those things are true. We want to make sure that we’re selecting, promoting, and recognizing leaders who are modeling the behaviors that matter most in the culture. I think another thing is weave culture through our measurement systems and our reward systems. What are the behaviors that we foster?

Dr. Tracy Brower (12:01):

What are the behaviors that we encourage that we discouraged because you’re not managing a culture as a monolith, you’re managing behavior and behavior over time is culture. Then finally, I think that development is a really, really big deal, a way to manage culture or manage the behaviors of culture. A way to foster culture is to think about how we’re developing people. Are we developing capabilities formally, informally? What are the ways that we’re fostering and building individual capabilities, team capabilities and organizational capabilities? Those are some of the ways that culture is built over time.

Michael Kurland (12:40):

That was a lot of information. I’m going to try and go through what I picked up off of on that. First of all, graphic equalizer, totally remember that. I have no clue how it works still to this day. It was a lot of knobs and you maybe thought it sounded better, but I think they figured out let’s just make that auto for everyone. Now you can just turn the volume up and down. That was great.  I think you said the leadership has to make culture as important as monetary, right?

Dr. Tracy Brower (13:15):

I would say the four main points are number one, have a common language. Number two, have leaders who model the right behavior. Number three, have the right measurements and rewards systems and number four really focused on development and be intentional about the way we develop people.

Michael Kurland (13:31):

So from my point of view, at Branded Group, I’m the guy who develops the culture and my counterpart is the operations guy. He’s head down, drill Sergeant like this is how you do your job XYZ. I don’t care how you feel, get it done. I’m the guy that when they want to talk to someone and talk about their feelings, they come talk to me. I’m the good cop of the bad cop. But I have to model my leadership skills after the behaviors that I also want them to exude. So I can totally relate to that. The last thing you were saying was trying to develop it, right? Because we develop, we spend all this time when we open a company and we know what our job is, and this is how you do your job, A, B and C. But no one’s ever, like sometimes you’re going to feel like this, and sometimes you’re gonna feel like this.

Michael Kurland (14:26):

Here’s how you should react when you feel like this to doing this part of the job. I think that’s the part where we really, as leaders do need to do a better job. I think the next generations are starting to pick up on that myself. I think I am, which is just in part on our up and coming leaders. Here’s how you develop your emotional intelligence, not just clicking the buttons on the computer and hitting send and you just made some money. Great, good job. I totally can get behind everything you’re saying. That is fascinating to me. So in your experience, what do you see from COVID-19 and its impact on culture currently?

Dr. Tracy Brower (15:11):

I think that just one thing looping back to what you were saying, that makes me think about employee’s skills as like a bicycle. I love this analogy where the back wheel is like a task, the mechanics of doing your job. You need the technical skills to do your job, whatever your job is. Front tire of the bicycle is like the EQ, the relationship skills, the navigation skills, and you’ve got to have both and neither is more important. You’ve got to have both of those. So I love what you’re saying about how you develop those. I think in terms of the changes based on COVID, one of the things that we’ve seen through research is that company cultures have become increasingly more formal. When we’re all together in place, we can see each other, you can take cues, and we can be super informal.

Dr. Tracy Brower (16:05):

We can pick up on nuances and there’s a lot more organic ways of the way that we manage and the way that we come together. But a lot of cultures have become much more formalized. If everybody’s home, we don’t have those nuances and those cues that we can pick up on, and now we need more policies, more practices, more formalized communication. I was doing a keynote with an HR association and the HR people were saying that the extent to which they were writing policies and practices, new procedures at the beginning of the pandemic was up like 90% or something like that, because we need more of that formality. I think another thing that’s really interesting about culture is lots of cultures thrive with involvement and participation and empowerment. A lot of what’s happening is we’ve got this kind of top down, right?

Dr. Tracy Brower (16:58):

There are mandates federally. There’s mandates based on science. There are mandates based on your state, and that’s all super appropriate. Company leaders are increasingly mandating as well, right? Do we come back? How do we come back? When is it safe to come back? How are you doing your work? How are you managing yourself when you’re home alone managing your work? I think that companies have this really critical opportunity to make sure that they’re still valuing and empowering and giving people opportunities for participation at the same time. It’s super reasonable that they’re doing more in terms of top down decision decision-making. So it’s got to be both. I think we navigate that by thinking about what’s in house, what may be non-negotiable when we have people come back and do temperature checks, but how might that be that people can participate in, how are we going to do that?

Dr. Tracy Brower (17:51):

There’s a committee that’s going to look at our process as it can be efficient, etcetera. That’s another of the changes through the pandemic. The other thing I think is really interesting is this idea of supply and demand. As the workforce has become greater in supply, more people are available for work. More people are out of work. Companies have this moment to do the right thing. They don’t have to do the right thing because they’re trying to attract people in a really tight job market. Now this is an acid test for them to do the right thing because of their values, because of their respect with people, because of the way that they treat people based on their norms and their overall principles. Not just because they’re trying to get people in the door, in and down in a tight labor market. So to me, those are the three things is we’re seeing more formality. I think we’re seeing more top-down, but we need to make sure we’re balancing with empowerment. I think we’re seeing this opportunity for companies to really demonstrate their true character in the way that they respond to this labor market and the supply and demand of worker. Those are the three things I would say are really interesting.

Michael Kurland (19:06):

I love it.  I picked up on a few things that we definitely did at Branded Group. First thing was formality because, and my HR person can attest to this because she was definitely writing all these new policies that we didn’t even know we needed. Sometimes you don’t know you need them until you need them. We were doing these Zoom calls and we would have these client Zoom calls and some of the employees would just show up, like they rolled out of bed. I was like, “Hey, you guys are client facing. Brush your hair and your teeth.”  I didn’t know I needed to write a policy about that, but apparently I did. It was all learning on the go. So that made me think of that. Then the last thing that you said, can you repeat the third one again? I’m sorry.

Dr. Tracy Brower (19:54):

Just the supply and demand. Like this is an acid test for companies.

Michael Kurland (19:58):

I knew I wanted to touch on that. We had to furlough a good portion of our employees for the first seven months of the pandemic.  Seventy-five percent of our employees were furloughed immediately or within the first two weeks. We wanted to do the right thing because we didn’t know what was going to happen and how fast it was going to respond. We allowed them to keep accruing vacation and we allowed them to keep their health benefits because we did not want, if they got sick, God forbid we didn’t want any them not to be able to go to the doctor.  The least we could do is let them accrue vacation. We were able to bring back almost 90% of those people. They were happy and at some point had to tell them, “Hey, look, we don’t know when we’re going to be able to bring you back.” So I’ve got to go get another job. You can still keep your health benefits and your vacation. Let us know if you get another job and resign from us so we can stop paying you. We tried to do the right thing and still are to this day.

Dr. Tracy Brower (21:02):

That’s a big deal. I’m super impressed.

Michael Kurland (21:05):

Well, thank you. Thank you very much. So we just talked about COVID 19 on culture and leadership. Now let’s talk about have you had to change any of the culture to adapt to this new paradigm of remote work? What are you seeing in that?

Dr. Tracy Brower (21:22):

I think some of the changes are that I think companies need to be more empathic. One of the things that we’re finding is that mental health issues are rife right now. There’s absolute correlation, more social isolation, more depression, more anxiety, more trouble thinking straight goes right along with more working from home. There’s just this interesting correlation that’s occurring globally. I think companies need to be more empathic, leaders need to be super empathic. I think we need to empower people more. Sometimes we’re hearing about cultures saying, “Hey, how do I get some keystroke technologies so I can really see if people are working.” I think we need to empower people and really find a way toward trust and have leaders who are really good at building a sense of connection, even if they’re from a distance.

Dr. Tracy Brower (22:13):

I think finally we need this agility. We need to develop agility, right? One of the things that’s been so true of the pandemic is you think you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you figure out, “Oh, it’s not the light at the end of the tunnel after all.” Or you think that you started toward the peak, you’re climbing this mountain and you think you’re getting to the top and you realize the peak is actually still in the clouds up there somewhere. The virus has ebbed and flowed to such an extent that we’ve got to be super agile in our ability to respond to those ebbs and flows. So those are some of the changes that I see that we are going to need to address in our cultures.

Michael Kurland (22:52):

I can relate to both of those points. Empathy, number one. I mean, it’s one of my things. One of the things that’s made me great at what I do is being able to be empathetic and relate to what is going on. But the one that you just nailed for me was the ebbs and flows of the virus and being agile. I thought this thing’s going to last three months. I thought June 1st it’ll be fine, July 1st. Then when June 1st, July 1st came and we were still stuck. They were saying we’re in the first inning of it to use a baseball analogy. I had to be agile. I had to level set, reset my thoughts. They said that they had really good progress on a vaccine just yesterday. I’m sure you saw that news. In the beginning I would have been like, “Yay.” Right now I’m just staying level until the doctor calls me and says, “You can get the vaccine and come to the office,” that’s when I’ll believe it’s starting to come down that mountain. But we still have a long way to go.

Dr. Tracy Brower (23:56):

I just wrote an article. It’s going to publish either this week or next week about you made a baseball analogy. I actually wrote about a marathon. We thought it was a sprint. It turned out to be a marathon and actually it might be a couple of marathons. How do we buckle down? How do we get ready for this? Even though we’ve got wonderful hope for a vaccine, right. The process of disseminating it and making it available still has us in the state for a while. So it’s buckling down fora longer inning or a longer marathon. However, we want to look at it.

Michael Kurland (24:36):

You were bringing up all the points before about the work from home and the troubled thinking and depression. I’ve said this before. It sounds to me like another form of PTSD right there. Once this is over, there’s going to be like COVID PTSD and a whole other group of issues that a lot of people are dealing with. I have employees, a lot of millennials that work for me that are single and live by themselves. Those are the ones I’m the most worried about because they’re at home, they’re working all day and there’s no one policing them in terms of, I don’t know if that’s the right terminology, but there’s no one saying, “Okay, maybe you shouldn’t drink that whole bottle of wine on Tuesday night by yourself.” Whatever it is that you’re doing to escape. That’s one thing that does worry me, long-term about this as much as the actual virus health concerns. I have to ask you the same question at the end of the show. What do you consider yourself to be an expert at and what advice do you have for our audience to become an expert at said thing?

Dr. Tracy Brower (25:51):

What a great question. That’s a lot of fun. It really, really, really made me think. That’s the nature of a great question. It makes you think.  I think I’m really, really good at being curious and I think that’s a really important skill to stay really curious. I read and I’m interested in research and I’m always wondering and wanting to learn, particularly from people who know lots more than I do. I think it’s pretty cool to be curious. I guess my advice would be to ask lots of questions and really, really appreciate those areas that you don’t have expertise in. Those are just really wonderful opportunities to stretch and to grow and to build around new perspectives. So that’s what I would say.

Michael Kurland (26:36):

Great advice, being curious, asking a lot of questions. You can’t go wrong with that. Tracy, this has been a great interview. I’ve appreciated you coming on and sharing your expertise with us. If our audience wants to get a hold of you, how can they do so?

Dr. Tracy Brower (26:53):

They can go to Tracybrower.com or steelcase.com. Either of those are great places where you can look me up and learn more about Steel Case as well. So thank you for having me. I really appreciate it,

Michael Kurland (27:05):

Tracy. Thank you for coming on and to the audience. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

I’d like to take a minute to thank you, our valued listeners. My intention is for this podcast to inspire you, in some way, to be better.  Change starts from within and radiates outward. Therefore, start with being better to yourself and only then will you recognize how to be better others and your community. Thank you for joining us today! If you want to learn more about Branded Group, then visit us at www.branded-group.com. From our website you can follow us on social media. Also, always feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.

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