Challenging Assumptions: 5 Flipped Perspectives on Poor Work Cultures

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Are you familiar with the term living company? Neither was I until I started working at one.

Before joining Curious Lion, I was part of a workforce that bonded over the shared trauma of working at a job that left you feeling unappreciated, underpaid and overworked.

These conditions are seen as ‘normal’ – all part of being a working adult and we’ve never challenged them. Instead, we chuckled as one at the millions of ‘I hate my job’ memes across the internet. You know the ones…

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My work identity was tied to feelings of, ‘I don’t want to go to work today’, ‘my boss is the devil’ (or a joke), and ‘no matter what I do, it’s not enough.’

Looking back, I don’t know how I lived that way for so long. Today, I’m so incredibly grateful to be part of a company where I’m valued for my work and as a human.

This feeling of gratitude led me to write a piece on employee loyalty. At the time, writing it was a form of reflection and therapy for me. No one asked me to write it. It was a message that I simply felt like I needed to share in the hope that people could see, not all workplaces are woven from the same cloth.

My article sparked a debate that I never saw coming.

“Is this for real? Who has the time?”

This is a comment in response to my article that’s been quietly simmering in the back of my mind.

The short answer: yes. We are for real and we make the time – because as important as the work is, our people are equally, if not more important.

I know that it must be hard to believe that such workplaces exist if you haven’t seen evidence to support such seemingly inconceivable claims.

It can be easy to assume that it is too good to be true.

But at Curious Lion, we don’t claim to have all the answers. We’re just not afraid to ask the difficult questions: “Who are we? What are we doing? Where do we want to go? How can we get better? How can we help?”

We’re not afraid of the answers either, because we know we can improve, adapt, learn and grow. For us, experimentation is the only way to find the formula that works best for us.

As a learning company, it’s in our nature to share our knowledge and experiences so others can build a culture of learning that works best for them. So, I want to share my learnings with you.

You Know What They Say About Assumptions…

When I started working at Curious Lion, I brought with me a set of assumptions of what working at a corporate company was like. Given enough time, we come to believe assumptions are the truth, when in reality, they are merely dictated by our experiences. This is where I believe the ‘overworked and underpaid’ assumption of working life comes from.

Here’s a list of the assumptions I brought with me to Curious Lion so you have a better idea of where I was at at the time.

  1. You are just a number/cog in the machine.
  2. Your voice is just 1 of a cacophony of voices – none of them heard.
  3. You are replaceable no matter what you bring to the table. Someone else can do your job.
  4. It doesn’t matter how much of yourself you put into your work, you can always do more.
  5. Output is valued more than employee well-being.

These assumptions were based on my experiences at my previous job. I’d like to share one experience that shaped these assumptions with you.

The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

“Stop, stop, stop, stop! What is this?”

These are my manager’s words to me as I sat in front of her and the Creative Director of the company, trembling in fear of what was coming next.

The script writers at my previous company called this exercise ‘Script Writer’s Got Talent’. Like each of my colleagues, I was forced to print out the script I was working on and read it aloud to my superiors. They would stop me after (what felt like) each sentence and question my choices, my ability, and sometimes even my character.

It was impossible to listen to a word they were saying when the voice in my head was screaming, “Don’t cry in front of them! Don’t cry!”

Putting words together seems a simple enough task for a writer (you would think) but fear, anxiety, and second-guessing permeated every facet of my writing process because I knew that my turn on the chopping block would soon come… It was paralyzing.

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Midjourney image

What I Didn’t Know Then…

The company had grown at a completely unsustainable rate in a very short period of time (well I did know that). What I didn’t know was the company was in the process of being sold and the way we were being treated started to make sense. It appeared to me that our department was being culled. People weren’t being fired, no. Script Writer’s Got Talent wore each person down until they couldn’t take it anymore or left of their own volition – I was part of the latter. I left without another job lined up.

I would not write another word for over 2 years.

This is the kind of story that warrants an “Is this for real?” response. Why is being treated with respect and thriving in a healthy work environment the exception and not the rule?

Fast forward to 2 years later…

“Please tell me you’re still writing!” – a friend and ex-work colleague.

“I’m so sorry, Lu, but I don’t anymore.” – a PTSD-ridden Theshel.

“I really need your help. I promise, it’s so different here. If you don’t like the work, then at least you can say you tried. We’ll take it slow and I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Agreeing to this request would turn all my assumptions upside down.

It would change how I viewed my work, my work environment and my life.

My first days at Curious Lion were filled with fear and anxiety. I nervously waited for the day I would be reprimanded for the quality of my work, my ideas, and opinions.

Time stretched on and the day never came.

Strange as it may be, waiting for the penny to drop pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was constantly on edge, confused by the disconnect between my past working experience and the one unfolding at Curious Lion.

Working with people who valued and respected my opinion, my ability and who genuinely wanted to see me succeed was not something I was used to. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to work at a living company.

Challenging My Assumptions

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
– Albus Dumbledore

The light was my mindset. I had to leave behind what I thought I knew about working environments. I had to be fully present and appreciate the transparency, support and sense of community that Curious Lion genuinely offers its employees.

So, without further ado, here are my top 5 living company traits that we embrace at Curious Lion.

1. We value people, not assets

Our most valuable asset is our people. We’re the ones doing the work – so we’re given everything we need to absolutely smash it! This comes in many forms: trust, support, guidance, time to develop ideas and the space to chase creativity.

Other than learning, our culture is one of open communication, collaboration, and active involvement in the decision-making process. Each of us contribute our ideas and expertise. This action may seem small but it makes us all feel valued, respected, and included. The end results are always undeniably better when all hands are on deck.

2. Continuous Learning and Development

We’re a learning company – you may think this one comes easily for us but as with all things in life worth doing, it takes work and commitment. Each of us are lucky enough to receive a yearly learning stipend which we are free to use in any way we choose in our pursuit of learning: books, online courses, seminars, training, the list goes on.

But we don’t keep our learnings to ourselves – we share it with the team. We even have a dedicated Slack channel for learning where we can post what we’ve been learning about or share interesting content that we’ve come across that could be helpful to others.

3. Well-being and Work-Life Balance

A big part of valuing people means prioritizing their well-being and promoting a healthy work-life balance. We’re totally aware that our physical, mental, and emotional well-being directly impacts our productivity and happiness in our work. So over time, we’ve put policies and programs into place to help us shine a light on well-being.

Time is at the heart of our approach to a work-life balance. We have flexible working hours which is especially important for us as a distributed team (parents and animal and plant lovers, too). We are encouraged to take extended leave (2 weeks) once a year to recharge and reset. We’re also trial running a 4-day work week that we have lovingly dubbed ‘Friyays’ where we have the option to take the day or the half-day off.

4. Trust and Respect

Trust is the foundation which leads to respect. With that strong sense of trust, we feel at ease being our authentic selves, sharing our ideas, and taking risks. We value each other’s opinions, skills, and contributions because we each know that our input comes from a place where we genuinely want to see each other succeed.

Our environment is safe and supportive, where we know we won’t be judged for trying something new. Now, only when you have this kind of environment can you have…

5. Collaboration and Teamwork

For us, knowledge really is power. We understand the value of collaboration, sharing knowledge and insights, and working together to solve challenges. From first-hand experience we can tell you that strong teamwork drives innovation and boosts productivity. That’s why we foster a close-knit community where we support each other, learn together, and also have fun together.

We take pride in being the stewards who welcome new employees and help build the lasting legacy of Curious Lion. Together, we’re shaping a bright future for our company.

“Who has the time?”

I want to challenge you to make the time. Because small actions like these garner huge rewards – both for the company and your people.

What A Difference 2 Years can Make…

It’s amazing how the right environment can make you thrive.

“Don’t cry in front of them! Just don’t cry!”.

This thought holds a different meaning for me today. It now comes from a place of appreciation, pride and being all-in at a company I believe in as much as it believes in me.

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Here’s an updated list of my assumptions of working at a living company:

  1. You are valued more than the product you produce.
  2. Your voice, thoughts, ideas, opinions, skills and knowledge are the true assets you bring to a company and you are irreplaceable.
  3. Your voice is always given a safe space to be heard and it is respected.
  4. Your uniqueness is cherished and celebrated.
  5. Every person is working toward a shared goal where communication, collaboration and community is key.

Like I said – not every company is woven from the same cloth. If you want to leave a remarkable legacy that spans decades, you can’t just follow the same old path. It’s all about striking the perfect balance between getting things done and truly valuing the people who play a role in building your vision.

So, what can you do today to make your people feel heard, seen, valued and supported? What steps are you planning to take to start building a living company at your organization?

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