What Kind of Workplace Culture Works For You?

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Back when I was a lawyer, I worked for a firm whose culture I loved – it was a quirky and intellectual place, as law firms go. I stayed years longer than I should have, because I liked the culture so much.

I thought about this today, when I attended the World Innovation Forum (#WIF11), a conference for leading business thinkers. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, talked about how he prioritizes a happy corporate culture above everything else.

If a brilliant person shows up for an interview with Zappos, for example, the company won’t hire that person if they don’t fit the culture. Even once hired, each new employee goes through a six week training process, after which Zappos offers to pay them for their time, plus a large bonus, and allow them to quit. The reason is that they don’t want employees who are there only for the paycheck.

So what is this culture of which Hsieh speaks? I like a lot of Zappos’ core values, such as:

-Create fun and a little weirdness.
-Pursue growth and learning.
-Do more with less.
-Be humble (Zappos actually measures this one by sending potential hires home via car service and then asking the driver how well he was treated).

But beyond culture, Hsieh is also interested in giving people a sense of purpose, and even calling, in their work. And here’s where I have to wonder. Is it actually possible to derive a sense of calling from performing one’s work at a corporation whose goal is ultimately to make money? The answer is surely yes if the corporation produces cancer medicine, or good books, or creative new technologies. But can you feel you’ve found your calling when you work for a sneaker retailer – no matter how wonderful the culture? Is it Orwellian to suggest that this is possible? Do well-meaning companies like Zappos inadvertently distract employees from finding their true callings?

Or does the concept of “calling” have a broader meaning than I’m giving it?

Would love to hear your thoughts.


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16 Comments

  1. Nina on 07.06.2011 at 16:57 (Reply)

    I believe your calling can be whatever contribution you can make to society with dedication and excellence. And the truth is that our society needs shoes and taxi drivers just as it needs good books and new technologies. It’s easier to see the work of the cancer researcher as a calling, but I think honest work in almost any profession could count.

    1. Susan Cain on 07.06.2011 at 21:03 (Reply)

      This is very wise, Nina, thx.

    2. Dayo on 23.07.2011 at 05:43 (Reply)

      I totally agree with you Nina. All that one does to contribute positively to society, whether it is making software or using software, should be seeing as a calling and pursued with dedication and commitment.

      1. Susan Cain on 23.07.2011 at 06:59 (Reply)

        That makes sense to me; I’ve learned a lot from this discussion. Thanks, all.

  2. jim on 07.06.2011 at 17:56 (Reply)

    I am starting to wonder if “true calling” is overrated. That law firm you stayed with — what’s wrong with staying someplace where you fit so well? What’s wrong with finding a problem or a need — perhaps one you never imagined — and devoting yourself to solving/serving it? It seems like quite an interesting and fulfilling life could be had that way, true calling or not.

  3. Susan Cain on 07.06.2011 at 21:10 (Reply)

    Well, in the case of my law firm example — and this is just my own personal case — I remember having an epiphany moment about halfway through my seven-year stint there, when my grandfather died at the age of 94. He was a Rabbi, and he’d kept on going to synagogue, kept on delivering sermons, right up til the very end. I doubt he ever used the word “calling” to think about what he did, but definitely he felt he was doing something important and something that he loved and was good at. So I remember asking myself whether I’d still want to be practicing law when I was ancient and infirm, and the answer was such a clear and resounding NO. That’s when I realized I didn’t even really want to be practicing it while healthy and young! So at least in that case, a good culture fit wasn’t enough, even though it was great while it lasted.

    I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences. Yours, Jim? Others?

  4. Jane London on 08.06.2011 at 07:54 (Reply)

    I agree with Nina and Jim and I think we sometimes do a great disservice to young people, who are trying to figure out what to do to make money. Culturally, we put a huge premium on ‘finding your calling’ and we make it sound like once you do that, you’re set. Maybe your calling has nothing to do with your job; or maybe you can’t identify it at age 18 or 22, or even 40. Big deal. We’re not all here to do big things; in fact, most of us aren’t.

    Own it and embrace it.

  5. Kristen on 08.06.2011 at 08:48 (Reply)

    I worked in a place that promotes “fun”through a book called “Go Fish” and I found it incredibly distracting. My guess is that Zappis idea of fun is an extroverted one. Introvertsenjoy concentrating and have a different idea of what fun is than extroverts according to a recent article in Psychology Today.

  6. Tamara on 08.06.2011 at 09:52 (Reply)

    Zappo’s sounds like it could be a great place to work.

    I haven’t met many whose true calling is what earns them a real living. Many do work very hard at their calling though, despite the abysmal pay for most of it (writers, artists, marriages, many hobbies, athletics, actors, and caring for others all come to mind). Many, when lucky, are a great fit for their chosen profession.

    I think we’re all very lucky if we are able to contribute something worthwhile, use our talents, find it personally fulfilling, support a life we’re happy with doing it and get compensated reasonably for doing it. Its actually pretty difficult to find that in many jobs, for many people.

  7. Mel on 08.06.2011 at 12:37 (Reply)

    I read Tony’s book and loved that an organization even exists like this. Another very interesting type of corporate structure that I just read about is 37signals.As someone who works better in teams, this intrigues me: http://www.inc.com/magazine/20110401/jason-fried-why-i-run-a-flat-company.html

    1. Susan Cain on 08.06.2011 at 14:41 (Reply)

      Thx for sharing this, Mel. I’m a big fan of Jason Fried’s thinking, having seen him speak at TEDx Midwest on “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work.” Here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work.html

  8. Danielle on 08.06.2011 at 18:18 (Reply)

    I just finished listening to Jason Fried on TED and I completely agree with him. We should clone him into millions of copies and place one at the head of every company in North America (yes, including Canada). I bet our economy would grow in leaps and bounds.

  9. Common Household Mom on 08.06.2011 at 20:23 (Reply)

    I am wondering if Zappos is filled with extroverts, or if “happy” is defined in a way that introverts can also fit in. I like the “pursue growth and learning” goal.

    I work part-time for a very large, very capitalist-oriented business. I love my job because it provides intellectual challenge, great working hours, and good pay. It is not my calling. My calling is to try to live out my faith as best I can.

  10. Rachel on 23.06.2011 at 11:09 (Reply)

    I don’t have anything novel to add to the comments, but I think this is a great topic to consider and discuss. I’m in my early 30s and still trying to figure out the proper fit for myself in terms of calling, work culture, etc. It can be really tough to sort through.

  11. Kara on 26.06.2011 at 20:41 (Reply)

    I just found this blog due to reading your most recent article on the New York Times. (I absolutely loved it and quickly shared it)

    I like that you bring up work culture. I’ve been wondering about this for a while. I have never really fit in to any job I have had. Even when I was very successful and fairly happy about my job as a supervisor at my campus eatery, I would consistently get marked down by my manager on my semester employee reviews because I was not an extrovert. I was good at my job, and I even got a comment from an anonymous cashier that I “was probably the secret mastermind behind [the campus eatery]“. However, since I wasn’t energetic, because I wasn’t everyone’s best friend, loud, and in everyone’s face, I was always marked as “needing improvement.” My manager was an extrovert.

    To summarize, I have always been extremely annoyed that what everyone wanted from me was extroversion. I can be extroverted, but 8 hours a day is pushing it, and I’ll never be as extroverted as some people. This is why I was extremely excited when I realized that I could get paid doing what I love - and that it didn’t require being extroverted all the time. I’m currently working towards a career in academia, where working alone in a quiet space is not only allowed, it’s required! I also have to network, attend conferences, speak at conferences, and most importantly, do fieldwork where I engage with people. And when I do do these more extroverted things, it’s exciting (if a little nerve wracking before public speaking engagements) and fun because I have plenty of time where I’m reading, writing, and engaging with ideas. I actually love discussing ideas with others, even in a group setting.

    So I’m a firm believer of finding one’s calling. I’m just lucky that I can (eventually) be paid for what I love to do.

  12. Denise on 30.06.2011 at 12:10 (Reply)

    I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s speeches on the Internet, and actually found it very inspiring. Basically he talks about “passion” which we can interpret as “calling” (I guess). Finding my passion may take a lot of time and effort, and it may not. So I realised that whatever it takes from me, and how long it takes, I need to find that “calling”. But doing something you don’t enjoy 100% doesn’t mean you are not right, it’s just how things go in our world. And who said we can plan our lives perfectly and it’s easy anyway?

    So, I’m on my way to learn to understand myself, find passion, test it and finally make living with it and not the least, enjoy it!

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