What’s in the candy dish?: A glimpse of organizational culture



“I work at the front desk in the lobby at my company. My day is spent greeting and communicating with visitors in person and on the telephone. The front desk is a very busy place all day long. People are coming and going and I sometimes have a hard time keeping track of it all.

“We have a candy dish that I frequently have to refill. It’s a stopping point for so many people. People pick up a piece of candy and strike up a conversation with me or with another person. The candy dish seems to be a magnet for people to take a brief break from their busy day to tell a story, share a joke, etc.

“Last month, I was disappointed to learn that someone ‘upstairs’ decided the company is spending too much money on candy (typically we had a wide assortment of chocolates). Now, we are going with dinner mints only. People are complaining and I’ve noticed the conversations have changed, too. They’re not as frequent and not as fun. The people upstairs are missing the boat on this one! They’re being penny wise and pound foolish! What do you think?”
This is a great story for me to comment on. It immediately tees up one of my favorite issues related to organizational effectiveness: the importance of organizational culture or what I like to call the “other bottom line” of organizational performance.
Longstanding BizTimes Milwaukee readers know that I have often written about my belief that the other bottom line drives the bottom line. Before I get too far, though, some readers might be wondering what is meant by the terms “other bottom line” or “organizational culture.” While there are many definitions of the terms, the one I like best is this simple one: “How we do things around here!”
The figure accompanying the column contains some of the variables that can be observed, measured or evaluated with regard to organizational culture. These are issues that people like noted MIT organization development researcher Edgar Schein would call “artifacts.” They are practices, pursuits and behaviors that reflect “things that matter” to an organization. Researchers like Schein have documented for years that leaders who take the time and effort to build coherent, explicit, tangible, positive and collaborative cultures are engaging in a powerful program of organization development. Organizations typified by such cultures are more effective, more productive, more satisfying to work within and more sustainable.

That is why really smart leaders spend significant time and effort on issues related to the other bottom line. They know that doing so can have a very profound impact on the bottom line. After all, the bottom line is a lagging indicator. It is an outcome and byproduct of the individual and collective efforts that have yielded it. In that sense, spending time developing a positive organizational culture can be viewed as a performance-facilitating endeavor, analogous to other well-established performance frameworks like Six Sigma.
Let me address the core issue raised in the question above. Some readers might be tempted to see the candy dish issue as a trivial concern. From where I sit, though, it is a powerful glimpse into the culture of the organization. In the consulting practice I lead, we often spend time working with clients to identify rites, rituals, practices, stories, etc. that exemplify the heart of the organization. At the risk of making a big deal out of it, let me observe that I think the candy dish, mentioned in the question above, is such an artifact.
Reread what was offered in the question. The candy dish was a gathering place of sorts for this company. It has been a place where people connected, laughed and spent a few positive moments with one another. The stories and connections made over the candy dish just might have had an impact on subsequent exchanges those people had with one another as they made decisions or solved problems of far greater significance for the company. The “relationship capital” built in candy dish conversations might have allowed for deeper and more probing discussions, because people had come to know one another, develop trust, etc., all because they spent a few moments together while sharing a candy and a story or a laugh.
Now, probably for belt-tightening purposes, the candy budget has been reduced and dinner mints have replaced the previous array of chocolates. The message in this action very clearly is, “We are a bunch of cheapskates who do not like people enjoying themselves and eating dark chocolates on our nickel!”
Really? How much money, within the context of the entire budget, can it cost to keep the candy dish filled with items that people actually enjoy eating? I agree with the reader; this company is penny wise and pound foolish!
Now, before someone thinks I am a frivolous spender who pays no attention to budgetary details, let me observe that this is not the case. I am highly conscious of the importance of making sound financial choices. But, in this instance, I think a few dollars spent on better candy can have far greater returns in the ways that I have outlined above. I think it is money well worth spending.
No less an authority than Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, understood and emphasized the importance of “connecting” as a powerful driver of organizational effectiveness. Noting that sidebar discussions over breaks at the company’s leadership conferences and retreats often yielded more important insights than some of the structured activities, the story goes that Welch build more of these breaks into the schedule over the years.
So, ultimately, my message in this column is a simple one: “Don’t skimp on the chocolates in the candy dish!” Keep the dish filled with the “good stuff.” That will ensure that the conversations, interactions and connections continue with enthusiasm and positive energy!
Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (www.OD-Consultants.com).  He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com

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