To better compete, create a ‘we’ culture

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All things being equal, in this high-speed marketplace, the companies who will win are those who are able to access, engage, and leverage the intellect, energy, and passion of every member of the workforce.

To do this, workplaces face a fundamental cultural challenge — between the prevalent “culture of me” that drives us toward silos, politics, and internal competition, and the “culture of we,” that drives us toward a flatter, team-based, collaborative workplace, with the ability to adapt rapidly to change.

This challenge is complex, since no workplace is all one way or the other, and because the unrelenting demands of the market are driving us inexorably toward a Culture of We. It’s a tough choice — transform or become uncompetitive — and even tougher because we may not know how to make the change.

The culture of me

There’s nothing wrong with having a company focus on the needs of individuals. Where it becomes difficult is when a highly individualistic culture takes over the business, and does so with sometimes serious consequences.

It’s All About Me: In this culture, for many in the younger generations, it’s not about being an organization man/woman, and it’s certainly not about money, power, or position. These are not motivations. There is a preference for inclusion, being valued, and comfort.

Just Do It: Along with this bias for action, with little planning, come Me directives, like “lead, follow or get out of the way”; or “ask for forgiveness, not for permission”. This is a culture that drives rather than engages; it’s about what I want, not what we want. It’s about my rules, not our rules, or even the rules of the game.

Heroic: The Culture of Me cultivates and admires heroic leaders. They are the stars we look to for vision and direction, for solutions, and quick fixes. You don’t cross heroic leaders. They are to be admired and feared. The possibility of retribution is a fact of work life.

Transactional: Work gets done by individuals getting what they need from other individuals. Group action takes too much time, and there is little value for consensus. Compromise is sufficient, even if a significant minority’s views are dismissed.

Fire-Fighting & Reactive: The natural result of the Culture of Me is a chaotic workplace that thrives on fighting fires and reacting to crises. Planning takes too much time, as does gaining alignment across the organization. Consensus? — you have to be kidding.

The culture of we

Have you ever noticed that when Americans face a crisis, like a tornado or a fire, that we usually come together quickly, share our time, resources, and hearts, and take care of each other? In the workplace, when we have a major deadline with a lot on the line, often we behave the same way. This is collaborative behavior focused on We, not Me. The bottom line is that at our core, we are fundamentally collaborative people. It is the way we naturally want to work together. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in work environments that don’t support these basic instincts.

It’s All About Us: In the Culture of We, it’s about what is best for all in the workplace, and for the business, not just a few individuals. This means we all contribute to the solution, innovate, create, take risks, and are focused on learning and serving the common good. We understand that it’s “all for one and one for all”, and that 1+1+1=30, that synergy is what distinguishes the best-in-class from the ordinary.

Just Do It — Right: In this culture, we plan up front; we measure twice or thrice, and cut once. We understand that groups make better decisions than individuals, and that when we plan and prepare, the solution will 9 times out of 10 be the right one.

Collaborate Inside to Compete Outside: People take care of what they own. In the Culture of We, we own it, we are involved, aligned, and accountable. When we own it, unity of purpose is the result, and with that unity comes access to the intellectual capital of every member of the workforce. That’s how we compete to win against cheaper labor rates and higher profits abroad.

Transformational: To compete, we must be transformational in our approach to work. We can’t keep going in the same direction and expect different results — that’s insanity. It means that in the Culture of We, there is a focus on safety — freedom from fear — and hence on trust. In this culture, we value honesty, integrity, and speaking our truth without fear of retribution.

Principle-Based: In order for ‘We’ to succeed, this culture is based on principles rather than power or personality. Ownership, alignment, trust, respect, integrity, full responsibility, and accountability. It’s everyone’s future, not just the future of a few.

The journey from me to we

Once we understand that the Culture of We is far more powerful and sustainable in this dog-eat-dog market, then it’s time to act. Understand your current culture. Measure it. Envision the future state. Engage senior leadership. Commit to a different way of working. Understand the benefits. Ensure that the character, will, and discipline are there to sustain the effort through the dark times. It’s a journey. It’s a choice. It pays off.

India, China, Korea, Mexico, Thailand — they are our competitors. Others are on the horizon. To compete, we need to transform our workplace cultures — and given the realities of the 21st Century, the choice is to become a We Culture, one workplace at a time. What is interesting is that this is entirely feasible — for it’s how people naturally want to work. The rest is up to us.

Marshall is a senior partner for organizational leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership, based in Greensboro, N.C. He can be reached at or 919-265-9616.