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Why Great Employees Leave “Great Cultures”

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“We have a great culture.” We have all heard it. We have all said it. But what does that mean?

Ping-Pong tables, free meals, and beer on tap? No.

Yoga, CrossFit classes, and massage chairs? I so need that, but no.

The promise of being part of a hip, equity-incentivized, fast growing team? Closer, but still no.

Culture is often referred to as “the way things are done around here.” But to be useful, we need to get more specific than that. I’ve been working in HR for over twenty years, and the best companies I’ve worked with have recognized that there are three elements to a culture: behaviors, systems, and practices, all guided by an overarching set of values. A great culture is what you get when all three of these are aligned, and line up with the organization’s espoused values. When gaps start to appear, that’s when you start to see problems — and see great employees leave.

These gaps can take many forms. A company might espouse “work-life balance” but not offer paid parental leave or expect people to stay late consistently every night (a behaviors-system gap). You might espouse being a learning organization that develops people, but then not give people the time to actually take classes or learn on the job (system-behaviors gap). Maybe your company tells people to be consensus-builders, but promotes people who are solely authoritative decision makers (behavior-practices gap).

Gaps like these are never solved by turning culture over to a Chief Culture Officer or pulling together culture committees. Likewise, inspirational leadership, the repetition of value statements, and letting people be themselves are important, but they are by-products of a healthy culture, not the drivers of one.

How, then, do we repair a flagging culture? A place to start is by reviewing the behaviors, systems, and practices in place in your company.

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