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Think Culture is About Ping-Pong Tables? You Are Wrong.

Culture has little to do with ping-pong tables and happy hours and more to do with what an entrepreneurs chooses to reward and punish.
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One of a founder’s most difficult tasks is recruiting and retaining top talent. When you’re hiring individuals with specialized, in-demand skill sets such as programming or business analysis, you need to position your company as an attractive, obvious choice for potential employees.

Many startups focus on creating an amazing company culture to distinguish themselves. But too often, founders -- and potential employees -- wrongly confuse perks with culture.  

As a co-founder of Influence & Co., I’ve interviewed a lot of people and usually begin by asking, “Why do you want to work with our company specifically?”

The most common answer I hear is: “It seems like you guys have a really great company culture.”

When I probe for more information, many uninformed candidates point to our casual dress code, Ping-Pong table and putting green as markers of our great “culture.” Although these things are great perks I’m happy to offer our employees to keep them happy and productive, they don’t define our culture.

Related: Could a Great Corporate Culture Be Bad for Employees?

Entrepreneurs can’t expect that providing free lunches or wearing T-shirts to a meeting will translate into a collaborative, transparent culture. This type of atmosphere is the direct result of the values your company holds and the standards you set for desirable behavior.

Brent Beshore, an investor in Influence & Co. once told me, “Culture is simply a reflection of what you reward and punish.”

Founders need to make sure they’re rewarding behaviors that contribute to a positive company culture, but these good and bad behaviors are sometimes tricky to identify. Here are two simple suggestions for determining what to reward and punish:

Reward results instead of face time. If you’re in a traditional environment, you’ll probably notice employees eyeing the clock at 4:56 p.m., counting down the seconds until they can pick up their things and call it a day. They might have finished the work they needed to accomplish at 4:30 p.m., but because the environment rewards face time, they think it’s important to show the boss they’re “working” until 5 o'clock.

Related: Do Pets Make the Best Co-Workers?

If you reward face time instead of results, you’re measuring output based on the hours employees work, not the actual value they add to your company. It might take one employee 30 hours to do the work it takes someone else 60 hours to accomplish, but you’re only assessing their ability to stay within the confines of the 9-to-5 grind.

Rewarding results means you hire intelligent people who work smart, trust everyone is doing all they can to reach their goals and hold people accountable when they aren’t.

This creates an environment where employees are motivated by the right things. When they’re rewarded for being good instead of looking good they’re driven to create more value for the company. It might sound nuanced, but it makes a huge difference. Being good means producing results, and looking good means trying to give your boss surface-level satisfaction.

You want to reward the people who are good, not the ones who do a great job of looking good.

Punish drama.  People often tell me we’re lucky our workplace is a fairly drama-free zone. But I don’t see it as luck. It’s an intentional effort to squash any traces of drama when they creep up.

It’s also something we vet for during the interview process. We ask questions about candidates’ previous co-workers and the personalities they work well with and clash with. Punishing drama means letting employees know when they’re negatively impacting company morale and not standing for passive-aggressive behavior.

It also means you’re rewarding those who put the team’s goals before their personal goals and are always trying to understand situations before assuming the worst.

Related: How to Make Giving a Part of Your Company Culture

When you think of companies with great company cultures, it’s easy to get hung up on perks, such as Google’s nap room or the free lunches Zappos offers, but social-media management system Buffer’s approach is a much better illustration of culture. The company does offer cool perks, including free Jawbone UPs for employees, but it also uses the SlideShare it created to showcase its awesome company culture and values.

Buffer’s SlideShare explains its 10 core values, which include “Be a ‘no ego’ doer” and
“listen first, then listen more.” None of the core values dwell on flexible hours or location opportunities, but those types of perks complement the company’s values and the collaborative environment they create.

When revamping your company culture, remember that a Ping-Pong table isn’t going to fix your drama-filled workplace or create a more trusting atmosphere. Instead of piling on more perks, be aware of the behaviors you’re rewarding and punishing to accurately reflect the positive culture you’re trying to build.

Related: 3 Companies Share How They Stay True to Company Culture Amidst Rapid Growth