Cultural Tells

By July 21, 2010Business

In the US, Walmart famously has the Walmart Cheer to galvanise the workers. In the UK, Tesco has the 4 o’clock rumble, where staff down tools and take to the aisles, pulling forward produce from the back of the racks for the next wave of shoppers. As in poker, these cultural ‘tells’ often say more about a company’s values than can the most carefully crafted piece of webpage PR.

When my colleague wanted to buy a bike, he took to hanging out with the smokers where groups of couriers congregate. They are bike experts, because they depend on them for their work. However, they are also experts in organisational mood. Want to know how your competitors are doing? Ask the couriers who deliver to them. Is the reception busy and buzzing? Who is signing in to the visitors’ book, or waiting in reception? How do the staff behave, and are the receptionists rude about the organisation when no ‘insiders’ are in earshot? Anyone who has ever been on a presentations skills course will have heard about Albert Mehrabian. He says that when words, tone and body-language don’t agree, your audience will pay much more attention to tone and body-language than they will to what you actually say. Busy people have grown up learning by copying, and by an instinctive absorption of environmental signals. So what is your company leaking? Does it undermine your ‘inside-out’ branding, and give away what is really going on?

I used to work for the Church Commissioners on Millbank in London. While I was there, we re-organised in an attempt to streamline the national structures. Our merger partner was the huge machine that is the General Synod office in Church House. One interesting cultural artefact that summed up the nature of the challenge was the additional day’s holiday we were each awarded every year: for Synod, Ascension Day, for the Commissioners. The Queen’s Birthday. Church versus State, and who should win? And when I worked for Deloitte, they made a huge effort to portray themselves as ‘hip’ to attract the pony-tailed dot-com generation. When the order was given to move to dress-down Fridays, two memos came out. One, from the Consulting practice, said: ‘please don’t wear anything to the office in which you’d be ashamed to meet a client.’ The guidance from the Audit firm ran to several pages, detailing acceptable brands and generating new rules like avoiding ‘patch pockets,’ these being considered less formal than tailored ones on a ‘smart casual’ trouser. Other cultural tells include the code book issued by Deloitte to help us decipher the forest of acronyms deployed in the MOD, which had presumably been intended to fox the eavesdropping Russians in the days of the cold war. And when I moved to Ashridge Business School, I stumbled across a range of rules, like reserving the bananas and home-made biscuits for participants and visitors. When I worked with a group from the BBC during the days of the Creativity drive, I noticed that they were all quite innocently conforming by sporting a seemingly regulation Storm watch, and in the late 90s you could tell there was trouble with the new telecoms strategy at Marconi when so many office walls still boasted pictures of military hardware.

So next time you meet a courier or a delivery man, or the taxi driver that takes your competitors to the airport, think Sherlock Holmes and ask questions. And take a look around your own organisation. What do people really believe about the company, because they will be giving it away in how they choose to act, particularly in the case of those small things that normally don’t matter.

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