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Culture is the Behavior You Reward and Punish

This post lists the key insights from this article, from an engineering leader at Facebook and VMWare, turned General Partner at a VC, Jocelyn Goldfein.


You should ask the following questions for your company:

  • So what should you do to get ahead at your company?
  • What makes people successful here?
  • What made you successful?’

“That’s your culture. Your culture is the behaviors you reward and punish.”

New hires don’t walk into your company already knowing your culture. They walk in anxious — hoping for success and fearing failure. They look around them to figure out how they are supposed to behave. They see who’s succeeding, and they imitate what they’re doing as best they can. They figure out who’s failing, and they try to avoid being like them.

Compensation helps very little when it comes to aligning culture, because it’s private. Public rewards are much more influential. Who gets promoted, or hangs out socially with the founders? Who gets the plum project, or a shout-out at the company all-hands? Who gets marginalized on low-value projects, or worse, fired? What earns or derails the job offer when interview panels debrief? These are powerful signals to our teammates, and they’re imprinting on every bit of it.

When all the “successful” people behave in the same way, culture is made. At Facebook, “data driven” was a critical value, and across the board, Facebook leaders uniformly make decisions informed by data and listen and respect dissenting arguments when they are presented with data.

When role models are consistent, everyone gets the message, and they align towards that expectation even if it wasn’t a significant part of their values system before joining the company. That’s how culture gets reproduced, and how we assimilate new co-workers who don’t already possess our values.

People stop taking values seriously when the public rewards (and consequences) don’t match up. We can say that our culture requires treating each other with respect, but all too often, the openly rude high performer is privately disciplined, but keeps getting more and better projects. It doesn’t matter if you docked his bonus or yelled at him in private. When your team sees unkind people get ahead, they understand that the real culture is not one of kindness.


2 min​ read

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