Five Things: November 16, 2023


You don’t have a culture problem, you have a management problem | Johnathan & Melissa Nightingale

“Culture handbooks don’t produce culture, people do. The culture you experience in your organization is a rolling average of the last thousand interactions you’ve had. Every piece of feedback, every conflict, every trade-off is culture. Every hiring, promotion, and firing, too. Those interactions come from everywhere, but a disproportionate number will come from your close peers, and your own boss. Culture may be everyone’s job, but some people have a lot of sway on your local average.”

I hate the term “culture fit” for work, and usually see it as a red flag in job listings or conversations. Early in my career, it usually meant obligatory social interactions with — and “managing up” — clueless white men, regardless of where they sat relative to me on the corporate org chart. Four years into working from home, “culture fit” has become something more intangible and harder to pin down, for better and worse.

I’ve always been more interested in a company’s sub-cultures, though, where the magic really happens. The dominant culture is usually defined by the CEO and enforced by those who want to be closest to them, but the best bosses I’ve ever had did a good job of shielding their teams from that culture whenever necessary, nurturing the various sub-cultures that help a company thrive.

As I became a manager, I had to perfect my code-switching to be able to navigate the dominant culture myself, while also creating space for those who weren’t willing or able to. It’s also really easy to not realize you’re contributing to an exclusionary culture, and your attempts to be inclusive inadvertently become exclusive. Recognizing how much sway you personally have on a company’s culture is the first step towards helping create an inclusive environment for almost everyone. (Sorry, but sycophants and nepo-babies should always be made uncomfortable.)

If your company insists on “culture fit” being a factor in hiring and retention, you are almost definitely working in a toxic culture and might not even realize that you’re part of the problem. Fix it or get out!


Is Your Team Caught in the Solution Fixation Trap? | Serena G. Sohrab, Mary J. Waller, & Sjir Uitdewilligen

“Interestingly, both high and low performers started the task by discussing what they knew about the problem. However, shortly thereafter, low-performing teams became fixated on pitching suggestions about what they should do and began generating various solutions. Once this happened, they failed to return to information analysis for any sustained period of time.”

HBR is at its best when it dives into actual research rather than punditry, and this is a great example of the former. It shows the researchers’ work and offers clear, actionable takeaways on the best way for teams to approach and solve problems.

I consider myself a generally decisive person in work situations, partly because I try to avoid weighing in on anything I don’t have a clear understanding of. While that definitely means I can rush into identifying (or dismantling) a solution too quickly sometimes — not allowing others time to reach a similar conclusion — I enjoy the information processing phase even more, especially when I don’t have a clear understanding of the problem that needs to be solved.

My favorite takeaway is “encourage evidence-based decision-making throughout the process,” because the only thing I love more than gathering and analyzing data, is using it to counter strongly held opinions, wild guesses, and gaslighting attempts.



It’s Been A Bad Year For The Video Game Industry, But A Good One For Unions | Nathan Grayson

“The games industry is already seeing a chain reaction of organization, and Microsoft’s neutrality agreement could lead to exponentially more, as thousands of workers suddenly have significantly fewer roadblocks standing between themselves and an organized workplace. Should that occur, Mitchell sees a future in which game workers can win the kinds of victories trumpeted this year by writers in Hollywood, as well as the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Parcel Service (UPS).”

I’ve never been in a union myself, but they’ve been a part of my world from my grandmother’s days in the ILGWU to my father’s time on the picket line in 1981, striking against the New York Times. I still have one of his strike posters.

This past year has been one of the most active and arguably successful years for unions in my lifetime, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see a ripple effect across various industries, as some companies decide to be more proactive about treating their employees better, if only to cynically stall any further spread of unionization.

Related-ish, this article is from Aftermath, the latest independent media launch by recently laid-off journalists hoping to build direct relationships with readers instead of advertisers, this time in the gaming space. (See also Remap and Second Wind.) I think this is the more sustainable direction we’ll see things turn in as the Substack-driven gold rush settles down and people realize the subscription model isn’t a bottomless well, especially if you’re just going to fall into the same scale trap that got us to this point.


A Conversation with the Commandant, Gen. Eric Smith | War on the Rocks

“Dynamics have changed… There’s a few things that we’re doing; spousal employment is a big one. And that means both us, the Department of Defense, paying for credentialing for spouses, so you don’t have to take a new teaching, or nursing, or medical… you can have portability with your expertise.”

I don’t talk about my time in the Army too much, mainly because it was a means to an end for a 21-year-old knucklehead that served its purpose, and I have mixed feelings and strong opinions about it that don’t neatly fit on either side of the political divide. I came across this podcast on LinkedIn, though, and it caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, the US military is the ultimate capitalist corporation in so many ways. It’s the leading business in the most profitable industry in the world: war. We manufacture it, we export it, and as a result, we frequently import it and then act surprised when it swings by for a visit. It’s also heavily subsidized, lightly regulated, and way too big to fail.

Second, it’s arguably the most sophisticated marketing operation in the world. From recruitment to publicity, it’s exemplary in almost every relevant metric, and in a worst-case scenario, there’s always a foreign culture to demonize!

What really struck me about this interview, though, was Smith’s sensible take on a more holistic approach to HR — a far cry from the old stereotypes of “skull-fucking” drill sergeants or worrying about Jody— combined with his matter-of-fact commentary on the Marines’ primary job: killing foreigners.


Unintended Consequences with Steven Johnson | The War on Cars

“Thomas Midgley Jr. had almost godlike powers of invention. He made possible mass motoring, refrigeration and modern American life. But his inventions came with unimaginably destructive unintended consequences. So here to tell us a bit more about Thomas Midgley Jr., and to mark the 100th anniversary of the invention of leaded gas is author Steven Johnson.”

This episode of The War on Cars was inspired by a New York Times Magazine article I hadn’t seen and wouldn’t have read (because I refuse to subsidize their awful political commentary and op-eds), about a guy most people have never heard of despite having a significantly negative impact on the world thanks to two separate inventions. Thankfully, Johnson does a great job of telling Midgley Jr.’s story, including his tragically ironic ending, and I highly recommend it for your ears and brain.

There are some obvious parallels here to current events, too, but that’s mostly left in the background for you to unpack on your own time.

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