Creating a Culture of Cultures: How Encouraging a Polyculture Allows a Company to Thrive

More and more companies are seeing their cultures as a differentiator.  What attributes, behaviors and values you espouse help determine the talent you recruit and retain, as well as your customer experience and growth. Today everything is agile; everyone is moving fast. An alchemy of technology, people, culture and operations is manifesting a completely different way of working. We may also need a different way of thinking. Over the years, companies have spent billions to identify and instill a corporate culture they believe will help them be as productive as possible and set themselves apart from their competitors. The goal: one consistent culture, one way of thinking. A single-culture environment can be very efficient. If we all think the same, all perform the same way, it is easy to work together. Some of today’s top companies are organized this way.

I have always taken a different approach

What would happen if we encourage – and actually strive for – a polyculture, an environment in which many different people with diverse ideas, customs and experiences thrive? Instead of looking for people who will “fit in,” we would look for people who stand out. We would value the attributes of aptitude, experience, ingenuity and creativity when evaluating candidates for hire or promotion over their ability to parrot the company line.

This has worked over the course of my own career.

I was lucky enough to join a company right out of college that had adopted this approach from its founding. It became how we built our business. We were attracted to smart people who were different than we were. We believed the market overvalued experience compared to aptitude and an innovative spirit. We believed that our employees’ ability to thrive in their place of work was as integral to our business success as our clients’ experience.

Over time, our approach became so ingrained into the company that it wasn’t even a conscious decision. As we grew and began to do business with people around the world, our polyculture allowed us to navigate different social cultures. When looking for areas around the world to expand into, we selected to site offices in countries that also valued the characteristics we prized.

How does one establish and encourage this type of polyculturalism if it is not instilled at the company’s founding?

Reward those who step outside the norm. Different viewpoints result in different approaches. Set a tone from the top that you value those who try new things, contribute new ideas. It’s common to celebrate successes. Don’t forget to also celebrate initiative and imagination.

Let people know they are empowered, then follow that up with action. We’re the first generation to truly have the world at our fingertips. We can reach out to experts anywhere. Encourage your team members to find and consult the best. Different ideas and different approaches will surface. They then will bring their broader perspectives back to your projects and your client work.

Develop an empathetic leadership style. If I say we are going from point A to point B in a monoculture, we all start walking in that direction. In a polyculture, someone may ask, “Why are we going to point B? Why not C?” Consensus takes more time; it takes more discussion. Sometimes B will end up being the proper route. But sometimes this willingness to consider alternative ideas can lead to startling successes.

Look for the artisans.  When we first established a presence in Poland, I found myself falling back into the habit of focusing on the size of our projects, the number of users. Our leader in Poland stepped in. “These are artisans, craftsmen,” he said. “They want to take pride in what they create.” He was right. By readjusting my perspective, we were able to achieve the success I sought while preserving the flexibility and creativity that set us apart from our competitors.


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