A strong company culture is something almost every business leader aspires to achieve, but only a few get right.
As Pienaar described, it’s the pulse that flows through the business.
It’s important because it’s all-encompassing.
But it’s hard to achieve because its intangible.
It’s a collective feeling. And how does one instigate a feeling, not just in one, but amongst all employees?
What’s the trigger? Where’s the source?
At Google, it’s the company’s socially meaningful mission that makes the culture so strong.
At Hubspot, it’s the company’s no-door policy, where everyone has access to everyone.
Zappos attributes its enviable culture to its highly selective hiring process. They ensure only candidates who are a good fit for the company culture are hired in the first place.
Warby Parker points to its commitment to team unity, its peer-to-peer guidance and excellent training.
At Jotform, we recognize the importance of nurturing a healthy and supportive culture too. We provide a comfortable work environment for our employees, and hiring positive, collaborative people is a top priority.
We each have our own approach. But there’s a common thread that runs through each of them. One that I believe is underrated.
The power of meaningful conversations.
Why the quality of our conversations marks the difference.
Water cooler conversations. They’re so common they’ve earned their own name.
They’re the sort of conversations we engage in when we bump into a colleague at work and impulsively revert to discussing the weather.
They’re superficial pleasantries that are indeed nice, but not particularly meaningful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these exchanges, there’s just not necessarily constructive in the long run.
One distinctive quality of our culture is, that we work to release improvements immediately, whilst other software companies typically release their latest changes in six-month cycles.
We’re about continuous improvement.
And, for this to work, we can’t have an environment that limits conversations to weather-related-pleasantries. We want our employees to feel free to explore and challenge the status quo, so they can come up with improvements and solutions.
It’s also one of the reasons why we place such a strong emphasis on diversity. Beyond making for a more interesting workplace, the evidence to show diversity in the workplace leads to greater profits is undeniable.
More diversity, more perspectives. And, the more perspectives, the more ideas, the more potential solutions, the more potential improvements to our product, and the better we can serve our users.
But this only works when these diverse perspectives are shared with others.
By encouraging employees to converse freely, you’re letting them know their curiosity is welcome. They’re empowered to dig deeper, get to really know their peers and understand their perspectives.
And not only is this more likely to produce strong business results, curious employees also report feeling more engaged.
How to have meaningful conversations
1. Be present
Three years ago, IKEA Spain hosted a gameshow for their Christmas ad.
The game was simple. The host asked each family member a question. If they got it right, they stayed. If they were wrong, they had to get up and leave.
The first few questions were pop-culture related. Anyone under the age of 30 who owned a smart phone would know the answers. And they did.
But as soon as the real questions were asked, people dropped like flies.
“What is your grandad’s passion?”
“How did your parents meet?”
“What’s your son’s favorite band?”
No one knew.
The point of the ad was to highlight that our phones distract us from reality.
Studies have shown that merely knowing that our phones are nearby significantly impairs our ability to focus, even if they’re on silent or switched off.
Information overload can stifle progress. So, employees at Jotform are encouraged to disable notifications on their phones and computers whilst they’re working. And the same logic applies to conversations.
Think of every interaction as an opportunity to learn. Eliminate distractions so you can work on being present. Listen, learn, and if you can, contribute.
2. Assume there’s always something to learn.
I was born and raised in Turkey and later moved to Connecticut to study computer science at the University of Bridgepoint.
From then on, I’ve had the chance to travel around the world and learn from a range of different perspectives. Experiences like these make you realise how many people there are in the world, and how differently you people live.
It makes it easier to accept when peers approach problems differently at work, because why wouldn’t they? Our inherent differences seem normal.
My experiences living abroad have made me eager to hear other people’s unique viewpoints. And it’s something I encourage our teams to do; to assume there’s always something to learn from someone else’s approach and perspective. I encourage them to listen and make space in their minds for what they’re about to hear.
Not only does this promote learning, it also makes the speaker feel like their ideas are valued and make them more likely to speak up again, in the future.
3. Ask follow-up questions.
A lot of people are afraid that asking too many questions will make them seem disagreeable and less likeable. But ironically, studies have shown that asking questions can actually improve our likeability.
Not all questions are equal. Asking too many unrelated questions can make us just seem nosy, or make the exchange feel more like an interview than a conversation.
Follow-up questions, however, are great. Not only do they make the other party feel as though you’re listening, but it also shows you’re interested. Plus, by digging in deeper, you’re taking the original idea further; a great way to promote innovation in the workplace.
I encourage all employees to ask questions. Whatever level they’re at in the company, there’s no questioning-hierarchy at Jotform.
4. Ask open questions.
“Did you feel anxious?” is a closed question.
It welcomes a yes or no response, and it makes an assumption about the subject; namely, that they were likely anxious.
Instead, try asking “how did you feel?”
This is an open question that’s much more empathetic to the person you’re speaking with. It invites them to reflect and implies you value their holistic perspective.
Open questions are more welcoming of ideas that have a greater level of depth than a brief response instigated by a closed query.
They’re more likely to lead to something constructive, at least in as much as they encourage meaningful dialogue that moves beyond the water cooler.
5. Go with the flow.
I recall a team meeting we had at Jotform a while back. One member of the team spoke for around seven minutes as he introduced a new idea. The rest of the team listened intently.
Once he stopped, another member of the team asked a question that the rest of us were confused to hear. It wasn’t particularly relevant and pertained to a minor comment their peer had made a few minutes ago.
It became obvious this team member had held on to their thought until the other finished speaking and hadn’t really listened to the rest of the explanation. Not only was the comment not constructive, it also took the team off track.
Agility and humility are essential elements of fruitful conversations.
Don’t hold on to thoughts that enter your mind whilst you’re supposed to be listening. Let them go and continue to listen. Because you don’t know what you could miss, and you certainly won’t make your peer feel as though you welcome their perspective.
6. It’s ok to admit you don’t know
I strongly believe too much time is wasted trying to make the right decision. So, I encourage employees at Jotform to make speedy decisions, even if they’re unsure whether they’re right. I tell them it’s best to make a bad decision than no decision at all.
And I think it’s a healthy approach. Again, humility and honesty are key ingredients of healthy communications.
I don’t want employees to feel they can’t take action because they’re not sure it’s the right call. And I don’t want them to feel they need to fabricate an answer to a question because they don’t know what the right answer is.
Admitting you don’t know is ok. And questioning someone who might not know, is ok too.
Having meaningful conversations is harder than you might think.
We talk at a speed of 225 words per minute.
And we listen at a speed of 500 words per minute.
It physically requires more than double the energy to listen than it does to speak.
But encouraging meaningful conversations at work is how teams build strong bonds. Its why people feel empowered to share their ideas and accept each other’s perspectives.
It’s how we learn, and how we stay curious. It’s the running thread that makes every strong company culture great.