A Q&A With McKinsey Veterans: Why Work Culture Matters More Than Money

A Q&A With McKinsey Veterans: Why Work Culture Matters More Than Money

PrimedtoPerform hc cSalary bump? Check! 401(k) match? Check! Good health care benefits? Check!

An awesome culture? Hmmm ...

It may sound silly to inquire about workplace culture when you're thinking about making a career move, but when it comes down to it, if you work in a toxic environment, money can only go so far in keeping you happy at work.

Did you happen to catch all the headlines over the summer about Amazon's bruising corporate culture? You know, the ones that regaled us with tales of backstabbed workers reduced to tears?

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That kind of toxic workplace culture comes as little surprise to husband-and-wife team Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, who fell in love while working at the revered management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

The duo has racked up 20 years of experience helping to create positive workplace environments across a diverse array of companies—from nonprofits to Fortune 500’s.

“In basically all of them, we've observed an epidemic of unhappiness and stress—even at companies that should have been awesome places to work,” McGregor says. “Neither the organizations nor the people were achieving their highest potential, and we fundamentally believed that it didn't have to be that way.”

That belief inspired them to not only found their own consulting company, Vega Factor, but also write a new book based on their research, “Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.”

The couple's core argument: Even if you're steeped in workplace negativity, there are simple strategies that people can adopt to bring about change.

We sat down with the power couple to hear more about how to create a power workplace culture.

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Doshi and McGregor have spent their collective careers researching workplace culture.

LearnVest: Why is company culture so important?

Doshi: When we define [company] culture, we define it as an engineer would. We say that it's a set of processes in a company that affects the total motivation of its people.

So it's not just your values and your mission—it also includes your compensation system, your performance management system, how you promote people, how you make decisions, how your leaders behave and other factors.

And that makes culture incredibly critical to a company's success. If you had an organization where all people did was robotically execute some plan, then culture wouldn't matter.

But the reality is that there is no such organization. At any given job, there's always room for a person to adapt—to individual customers, specific markets, certain technological changes, and so on.

So at the end of the day, the degree to which an organization can actually deal with change at any level is a function of its culture.

RELATED: 4 Brain Blockers That Can Hold You Back at Work—and How to Outsmart Them

You talk about the concept of total motivation in your book. Can you explain what this is and how it can impact culture?

McGregor: Total motivation (ToMo) comes down to a very simple truth: Why people work determines how well they work.

There are six common reasons why we work—three of which help us perform better:

1. Play: You work because you love the work itself and it's fun.
2. Purpose: You work because you deeply believe in its impact.
3. Potential: You work toward an indirect goal. For example, you take an internship because you understand it’s a stepping-stone that will lead to a dream job.

And then there are three that can actually hurt performance:

1. Emotional Pressure: You do certain work to relieve guilt, shame or insecurity. For example, you run the family business even though you're not interested—but a parent expects you to.
2. Economic Pressure: You work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.
3. Inertia: You actually don't know why you work. You show up today simply because you showed up yesterday—you're just going through the motions.

When we surveyed about 20,000 people worldwide at 50 major companies in a variety of industries, we found ToMo was most predictive of performance—and that you can use these motives to improve performance and culture.

"Gym memberships and a fancy cafeteria might facilitate friendships among employees, but they're not going to increase the factors that make the biggest difference—play, purpose and potential."

Doshi: Take the play motive. [When it comes to office culture,] we're not talking about having a ping-pong table—the play motive has to come from the work itself.

Think about children at play. They're actually running experiments by constantly tinkering, trying, seeing what happens, and learning from it.

Are you inspiring your employees to be curious and act on that curiosity? Are you fueling them with ideas, data or inspiration that allows them to say: I think my work could actually be better if I do X, Y and Z?

For instance, you could organize a team-building activity or contest. A lot of tech companies have what are called hackathons where employees try to build, say, the best new product possible in one or two days.

McGregor: You could also foster an attitude that encourages innovation by bringing in regular speakers, or provide opportunities for employees to go to conferences that will teach them new things.

Southwest Airlines, for example, encourages its flight attendants to play in the area of customer service. There are viral videos on YouTube of flight attendants giving hilarious safety announcements that rival the best comedy sketches.

But what about things like ping-pong tables? Don't they have some value when it comes to culture?

McGregor: Things like gym memberships and a fancy cafeteria might help facilitate friendships among employees, which can help decrease emotional pressure if you're feeling constantly judged by others.

But they're not going to help increase the factors that make the biggest difference—play, purpose and potential—so they're not going to lead to the highest level of performance.

Doshi: And economic perks like 401(k) matching can be pretty important because they help reduce economic pressure.

But on the flip side, if you're using money to try to make someone stay at a company—a.k.a. putting them in "golden handcuffs"—that can increase economic pressure and have the opposite effect.

What most surprised you during your research?

McGregor: That hands-off leadership doesn't work.

That's the type of leader I used to be. I knew enough not to use toxic behaviors, like yelling and using punishments. I thought that people wanted lots of autonomy, which meant that I only needed to be there when they needed help.

But that doesn't create a very motivated team because you're not actually helping people play—find new ideas, experiment, learn, develop and grow. And you're not helping them see the impact of their work.

So you can actually be a more proactive manager—but not a micromanager—to create ToMo.

What would you say to someone who believes it's too late or tough to reboot the culture?

Doshi: I can understand that perspective, but because we've been able to create a science around high-performing cultures, we can figure out what all the different elements of an organization's culture are—and tell you how those should be redesigned to drive higher performance.

McGregor: In our book and on our website, there's an individual survey that you can take to measure your own motives, as well as a survey you can send to your team.

If you ask each person on your team to anonymously answer the questions, you can then measure the total motivation of your team.

And if you do that every six months or so, you can track how your team's ToMo is evolving.

RELATED: 10 Tough-but-Valuable Career Lessons to Learn By 30

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