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You can’t delegate company culture. You can’t buy it. So, what can you do? Look up.

Minimal offices, modern furniture, wellness programs, tequila Fridays, organic lunches, and on-tap kombucha are quickly becoming cornerstones of a desirable 21st-century workplace. But, citing research from Bersin and Associates, executive coach Meredith Haberfeld says those things aren’t improving engagement: currently a $4 billion industry.

By some measures, engagement is even going down, according to Haberfeld, who also serves as CEO of ThinkHuman.

“A lot of companies think, ‘Wow, we have to spend billions of dollars to make this thing happen,’” Haberfeld says. “It's more like, ‘Wow, we have to look at ourselves and shift how we're operating, and that's going to have a significant, even seismic impact on the culture of our organization.’”

Join Meredith Haberfeld for her talk, “Bye, employee engagement; hello, human intelligence,” at Relate Live, October 23, 2017, in New York.

Just like you can’t buy love, you can’t put a price tag on engagement, But all is not lost: developing HQ, or human intelligence—particularly among the upper echelons of your org—could be the way to get there.

Culture clash: what it is and what it isn’t

Company culture is more than free snacks, but on LinkedIn and Glassdoor, in real life, and even internally at the office, we use the term interchangeably with “perks.”

Instead, culture, Haberfeld says, is any social grouping and the system of behavioral norms and beliefs that define how a group operates. It's our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about how the world works. It's a shared reality about human relationships and human nature. It's those invisible expectations that shape how siloed departments feel or how guarded people are—or, on the other hand, how open and willing people are to be vulnerable or take a risk.

It is so ingrained, in fact, Haberfeld believes you can find everything you need to know about company culture just by observing the behavior of its people.

Haberfeld believes you can find everything you need to know about company culture just by observing the behavior of its people.

Ironically, companies that are getting the culture right—achieving parity between what they want their culture to be and what it actually is—aren't focused on engagement at all.

“It was a big light bulb that went off for us when we uncovered that,” Haberfeld says. “And there’s an intuitive part of it, as well. Have you ever been in a relationship, whether personal or professional, where you can feel that the other person's giving to you in order to get something out of you? People don't believe inauthenticity or inconsistency. So, ‘How do I get engagement?’ is the wrong question. If that's the question anybody's asking, they should stop asking it.”

The sonic wave, trickle-down theory of EQ

Imagine that culture is a sound wave bouncing between senior leadership and every level of the organization, where leadership behavior is at the peaks of the wave. There may be small pockets of high-vibration culture throughout the wave, but if it isn't embodied by the top (the peak), it doesn't move throughout the organization as a whole.

Leadership sets the bar. Specifically, leadership behavior

“You can't delegate culture,” Haberfeld says. “You can't buy it. You can't implement it. This is why you can have the most amazing Chief Employee Experience officer or head of HR come in and do fantastic programs that create no lasting change. They might create a pocket of energy and everybody's like, "Yay! That felt so good!" And then, by force of entropy, it goes back to reflecting whatever the leadership behavior is.”

“You can't delegate culture. You can't buy it. You can't implement it. This is why you can have the most amazing Chief Employee Experience officer or head of HR come in and do fantastic programs that create no lasting change.” - Meredith Haberfeld

Leading the leaders

Culture is a tall order for any C-suite. The task of leading an entire organization by example first requires some frank and potentially uncomfortable introspection. A leader must ask himself or herself: “Do I know what my triggers are? Am I being honest about how I react when I get triggered?”

Take, for example, the CEO of a company in New York City. Haberfeld says the company was full of smart, talented people, led by a CEO who often stated her commitment to employee happiness. She showed it, too; each person was uniquely celebrated on their birthday, and massages and manicures were common team gifts. Employees liked and appreciated the gestures.

But that very same CEO, amid bouts of anxiety, habitually sent all-caps emails (sometimes at 3 a.m.), thereby sending the recipients into their own version of hunker down, CYA, blame-gaming.

“That anxiety goes rippling out through the company, and no amount of cupcakes, massages, or mani-pedis can interrupt that chain,” Haberfeld concluded—even for a leader who demonstrated a commitment to cultivating (and funding) a happy workplace. On the other side of the coin, there’s SoulCycle. Despite high-stress early days and dangerously low bank accounts, its leaders effectively demonstrated that it was a great place to work. Haberfeld, who worked with the company before it took the indoor cycling business by storm, says the leadership's dedication to personal development placed a tourniquet on employee dissatisfaction at a time when it could have hit its peak.

“Just like the other CEO’s example rippled through the company in an anxious, yucky way, this rippled through the company in a really positive and lasting way that hit not only the employees but the customer experience.”

Start with one bite of the HQ elephant

Firstly, remember that self-actualization is a core human drive. Maslow placed it at the top of his hierarchy of needs because human beings innately and intensely want to fulfill their potential.

That means leaders of the future must be extremely skilled at rallying forces and uniting people. In other words, HQ will be a required qualification alongside your years of experience and passion for a role.

"‘What should I be doing?’ should be rephrased as ‘How do I unlock the potential of each individual on my team and the team overall?’” Haberfeld recommends.

"‘What should I be doing?’ should be rephrased as ‘How do I unlock the potential of each individual on my team and the team overall?’” Haberfeld recommends.

But as real-life examples tangibly demonstrate, it’s incumbent upon leaders to look inward—starting first with some That’s in contrast to, as Haberfeld describes it: “walking through life protecting ourselves from seeing the full spectrum of who we are.”

Want to learn more? Join Meredith Haberfeld for her talk, “Bye, employee engagement; hello, human intelligence,” at Relate Live, October 23, 2017, in New York.

It’s quite a view from 10,000 feet. You’ll slowly see true impacts in company culture (i.e. in employee behavior), and also on another buzzy c-word: collaboration: What a wonderful world it would be, for example, if cross-functional teams weren’t mired in ego-driven turf wars in getting a job done.

By all indications, we are getting there. The old world of ego-driven business is so universally recognized, it’s leveraged as dramatic fodder; think The Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho. Haberfeld, by contrast, describes an emerging world of business where human beings are operating in new and unified ways, all of which depend upon emotional intelligence and a willingness to cultivate it. The business case for all of this is a strong one. In the short term, you end up with engagement that wasn’t engineered. In the long term, the company grows into one infused with personal and emotional resonance: for those on the inside who reward leaders with loyalty, and for those looking in and saying, “I want that.”

“Relationships with ourselves as human beings are complicated. Relationships with our peers at work are complicated. Relationships with our customers are complicated. But that doesn't make that bad news. It makes it more interesting news,” Haberfeld says.

Tara Ramroop is a content marketing manager at Zendesk and frequent contributor to Relate. A loquacious Libra lady of letters, she firmly believes the craft of storytelling makes the world a more understanding and, well, relatable place. A Bay Area native, English degree be damned, she has no qualms about saying or writing "hella." Follow her visual stories and occasionally cheeky captions on Instagram @roopisonfire.

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