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The Elusive “Holy Grail” of Organizational Culture and the Power of Like

Fernandez, Claudia S. P. DrPH, MS, RD, LDN

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH; Column Editor

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: July/August 2015 - Volume 21 - Issue 4 - p 406–409
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000281
The Management Moment

This commentary describes the power of “like” to create and promote a healthy and productive organizational culture.

Department of Maternal and Child Health, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Correspondence: Claudia S. P. Fernandez, DrPH, MS, RD, LDN, Department of Maternal and Child Health, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB# 7445, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 (

The author has no conflicts of interest to declare. This work was not specifically supported by any grant or other project.

A “Holy Grail” of management is how to create a healthy and productive organizational culture. This elusive quality is the topic of books,1–3 workshops, conference lectures, and articles. When you have a healthy organizational culture, employees collaborate and cooperate, they share information and support one another's goal achievement, they listen, they communicate, and they appreciate the contributions each makes toward the success of the whole—behaviors one might associate with people who like one another. In reality, the modern workplace doesn't often exude such utopian ideals, resulting in a very different culture with very different outcomes than the ones listed earlier.2,4 How can managers and leaders promote a culture of sharing and support that results in enhanced camaraderie and productivity? A fundamental quality is the power of “like.”

When I say “like” I am not referring to Facebook like, social marketing, or insubstantial allusions to things being widely approximately similar. Although it might feel taboo to discuss, “like” has an unspoken and tremendous impact on your organizational culture. This is not about like and dislike. It is about like and the absence of like. Like creates preference. Preference can create prejudice. Prejudice will lead to disparity. We all need to be concerned with “like.”

The importance of “like” is overlooked in the workplace. Bring it up at the office and you will probably be greeted with comments of derision about “people who need to be liked,” or (insert eye roll here) “that's just not professional.” We mock the desire, in part, because “like” feels wimpy. It feels immature and needy. We don't feel comfortable because at its very root a desire to be liked indicates vulnerability. Yet, I would venture that most people would rather be liked than suffer the absence of it. What is it about being liked that makes it desirable on an individual level and translates into impact at the organizational one?

Being liked creates a safe environment to learn and grow and to master new skills.5–7 When you know you are liked, you can be imperfect, fail, and try again. You are often given “a free pass” when you stumble. You are treated with compassion. When you are liked, you aren't thinking about defending yourself. You can take a risk or be vulnerable with your colleagues. “Like” protects our areas where we are not completely confident, where we are still building skills and need a nurturing environment to do so. “Like” brings with it support and encouragement and guidance—and those things don't come with a price tag. They are freely given because the other person “likes you.” Don't we want that kind of spirit in our organizations? What this whole arena of “like” indicates is our human connectedness. The very nature of work in our thought economy is human beings working together with all the complexity they bring to the group. And if they don't like one another, that work can be more destructive than constructive, more conflict than cooperation.

A desire to be liked is one side of the story—but the real impact on organizational culture rests on the other side of the coin. Yes, some individuals need to work with others who like them because they need to be liked. But there are those who need to work with people they like in order to treat them fairly, to be inclusive, and to treat them equitably.

The absence of like—let me underscore not the presence of dislike but merely the absence of like—is the absence of us getting to truly know and understand our colleagues and embracing them for who they are. This absence lays the foundation for our preference to mature into prejudice and ultimately to manifest as limiting the opportunities or voice for others, while we prefer, promote, and include those we do “like.” It becomes groupthink.1,8,9 It becomes preferential treatment. It becomes prejudice. It becomes disparity.

It is not the chemistry between people that is a problem—chemistry is useful to help people work together well. But the lack of chemistry between people can grow into the organizational problems of internal competition, information hoarding, and lateral violence, also referred to as workplace bullying,10,11 which is extremely destructive to workplace engagement.12–14 Research from 2003,13 and echoed a decade later in 2014,14 shows that a top reason behind employee engagement12–14 is “senior management's interest in my well-being.” Also in the top 10 (at number 7)13 is “collaboration with coworkers.” Your organizational culture and productivity are based more on “like” than you probably care to admit.

As a manager, it might seem a hopeless task to cultivate “like” among your team members. Just look at how they group for lunch, who they talk to informally, who they invite onto teams, who they make opportunities for, who they mentor. How can you make a team of very different people like one another? The most you might hope for is respectful indifference. But “like” is vital to creativity. It is vital to engagement. It is vital to achieving great things as a team. When we like others, we move ourselves out of the way for them. We put aside our egos and often put others' needs before our own. Servant leadership15 has been embraced by many who work in public health. Working to serve the needs of others, particularly in a selfless way, is a much easier practice to foster at the workplace if you actually like your colleagues or the community you are serving.

There are some who will feel distinctly uncomfortable reading this philosophy on the power of like. Distancing it through applying psychological terms (such as “positive personal regard”16) might make it feel safer. Perhaps, this is because at a very deep level it is hard to truly like others until we can truly like ourselves and that takes giving up judging (particularly making snap judgments) of both others and ourselves.

This positive personal regard in the workplace,16 or “like,” begins with tolerance. It begins with a perspective that we assume best intent among our colleagues. It begins with the idea that none of us are perfect and we should be extremely cautious in how we distinguish helpful guidance from critique, and critique from criticism. From this beginning, it moves to an understanding that we have something to learn from each and every person on our team, or in other words, in personal humility. Each and every person has something valuable to contribute—both including and beyond his or her job description. When you put colleagues in a box and put limits on them that are comfortable to you, you don't merely limit their voice, you also limit what you can learn from them.

Here is an example of a leader's unconscious incompetence with the absence of like: effectively disinviting a lower power person (such as a support person) from speaking up at team meetings. This might happen, directly or indirectly, by being dismissed or diminished. This hostility will ensure that person's muteness as he or she quickly learns to never be so publicly humiliated again. Not only will that person remain silent after such an incident but also his or her engagement and morale will suffer.

Another way to achieve the same outcome is to denigrate a third party in a colleague's work category—because they will hear that person as an extension of themselves, be that gender, color, orientation, educational level, organizational position, etc. Once they hear their counterparts as a target, they are much more likely to think in a “keep your head down and stay safe” mentality, which means they are not contributing to the team with the best of what they have. They are spending their time thinking about how to stay safe, either emotionally or reputation-wise. Thinking defensively prevents one's energy and ideas from focusing on the future or on accomplishing the mission: they are simply too busy fighting the enemy within.

As a leader, your effectiveness will benefit from cultivating this “culture of like.” Leaders sometimes need to make difficult decisions in response to changing conditions or because of limited resources—decisions that might be highly unpopular with team members. While the very “culture of like” will make it more painful to make those decisions, that same culture will make it easier to explain them. A genuine culture of like helps team members to avoid feeling personally targeted by decisions and to be more able to grasp the big picture and thus more accepting of inevitable outcomes, no matter how unpopular. Cultivating a culture of like will help those affected by a decision to listen to the reasoning behind the tough calls and to act on those decisions respecting and assuming the best intent on the part of the leader.

Take a moment to personalize this concept: imagine that individuals on your team are those who you really like. How would you give them voice? How would you listen to them? What steps would you take to ensure that they were included and had opportunities for their own growth, development, or advancement? If they needed to give you feedback on how to be more effective in your job, how deeply would you listen to them if you really liked them? If they had handled complex challenges with difficult decisions, how much more would you trust them? And if they were imperfect, still struggling with some of their own skills or sometimes simply being swamped, how understanding and empathetic would you be if you really liked them? What would happen on your team if you treated everyone that way? As if you really, honestly liked them, whether they were above or below you on the organizational chart?

It is important to reflect on how you might actually be treating people in your organization differently—some with like and others with the absence of like. This might feel invisible to you, but there will be a yawning chasm separating each person's experience in interacting with you. Those treated to such casual indifference will feel that prejudice of preference to which they are not included—particularly when they understand that their treatment is not universal. For example, when a colleague to whom you are indifferent misses a deadline or makes an error you might say, “Why did you drop the ball on that?” or “You missed that deadline,” “This isn't right at all,” or maybe even “You need to improve this”. But what do you say when you really like the other person? Probably something that stems from support and compassion or to inquire about the context. For example, “I noticed that you got the report in later than we had anticipated—can you share with me what happened?” You might give them more support by checking in with them more frequently or giving them reminders about the project. A colleague who is upset but not in the preferred category is often labeled (problematic, fussy, high strung), but one who is liked is just having a bad day. Colleagues who are liked get approached with compassion and understanding, or with a discussion centered on the strengths of a project, or with inquiry about their feelings—much of which falls into what has been termed an appreciative inquiry17 approach. To engage in a conversation exploring the other person's perspective in order to learn about that person's view is generally reserved for those who fall into the category of “like.” When you really like the other person and he or she is upset, you often reflect on how you might have contributed to the situation rather than blame that person for it.

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How can leaders, managers, or teammates nurture a culture that truly fosters engagement and respect? It starts with tolerance. From there, it moves on to getting to know more about one another. It then matures into an understanding of how others are different from oneself. It has a very strong root in compassion for others, which requires relinquishing judgment. It comes from experiencing that others have gifts and lessons to teach. It is then that one starts to truly value the contribution of those people and it will grow into a desire to support and connect with them, often because the very difference between people is the fertile ground of innovation, creativity, and personal growth.

You might have complained about the “good old boy network” somewhere along the line. But really this is just the network of “like” ... a network of “preferential like,” the kind of like that makes an individual extend a helping hand or share an insight or hot tip with a liked colleague. Just think of how effective your organization would be if everyone extended that helping hand to everyone else, not just preferentially. If everyone shared insights and information with his or her colleagues. If everyone showed compassion for his or her colleagues. If everyone actually “liked” and acted upon that like of others. To treat others as though you actually like them will have tremendous impact on workforce productivity and employee engagement. And who knows, once you start acting on the belief that you like one another, you might just find that you actually do.

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