2\Chemistry: The New "Culture"

Updated: Sep 29

We talk a lot about “Culture” in the workplace. It’s a defining characteristic featured on company websites and discussed in leadership messaging. But has this vision, that we’ve strived so hard to achieve, limited our sight of what is actually in front of us?

Credit: Hans Reniers on Unsplash

Aside from romanticized connotations, “Chemistry” in the workplace is what I hope to build. It’s not at all short of a “defining characteristic” and it creates vision while keeping our focus on what’s in front of us.


Let me explain.


To begin, I must give credit where it is due: Cameron Moll (@cameronmoll) first brought this idea to my attention in this Medium article, posted back in 2017. His thoughts have only percolated in my mind and find even more relevance now.


Top talent is increasingly attracted to top companies by much more than foosball tables and soda fountains. And companies are more and more up-front in their communications surrounding their ‘people’ initiatives, including – but not limited to – Diversity & Inclusion, Mentoring Leadership, Environmental and Social Governance, and Non-Profit Support Initiatives. They frame their mission vision to focus on what is in front of them: the diverse workforce that fulfills the mission.


CULTURE is an umbrella term. When used as a noun, it describes the collective achievement of different parts (arts, customs, institutions) forming into one defining manifestation – like pop culture. Culture also doesn’t exist until its defined. Then, we look at the past achievements of different parts that led to the definition. Going forward, achievements are still counted, so long as they fit the definition.


In a corporate context, culture has been advertised as positive. While embodying community, goals, and expectations, it has provided employees with purpose and belonging. It’s recognizable and distinctive, certainly a reason why a company might use this as a competitive advantage when recruiting top talent.


But is it limiting? It can take a while to build and cultivate the culture you want. So once you have it, you advertise, “We have a great culture.” You did it. You got there. But getting there also makes you defend it. And why wouldn’t you? You worked so hard to define the collective achievements of the different parts at [this] time, that newer parts are only counted so long as they fit the definition. “Does this sound like a cultural fit?”


In this light, I can think of company culture as the individual contributor fitting in to the defining manifestation.

Too often, companies look at culture as a defined manifestation resulting from past achievements. But business can only live through growth, and growth embodies innovation, refinement, and adding new parts to the system. Not all new parts will fit a nostalgic memory, and when they feel they don’t fit, different components in the system start to react.


CHEMISTRY, in this context, borrows from the scientific use of “identifying substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances.”


I can think of company chemistry as the individual contributor interacting, combining, and changing the matter because of their effort.

If I’ve learned one thing about a company's ‘people’ in the last year, it’s that above-the-line employees find new ways to interact, combine, and change to form new processes. The way we collaborate has changed. The way we communicate has changed. The way we contribute and achieve has changed. A company’s chemistry changes. It investigates individual properties and embraces new outcomes. It grows with the company.


Because the people combine and change the matter because of their efforts, leadership would be smart to respond with updated visions and goals, focusing on the ongoing (and not past) achievements of what’s in front of them. And in the end, employees want to know how their effort impacted growth at the company, and not whether they fit in.


CULTURE is defined. A stake in the ground. The result of combining similar things. But holding tightly to that definition, we run the risk of continually reaching similar outcomes because of continually combining similar inputs. To attract top talent, we lead-off with, “We have a great culture.” So I know the culture is great, but will my process fit?


CHEMISTRY is evolving, its exploratory, where defined ideals combine with new interactions to create a system where all elements can play. As Cameron Moll states, “They key difference with chemistry is that positive outcomes are not dependent on combining similar things.” To attract top talent, we can frame evolving vision as “We’re building a dynamic chemistry.” Which means there is room to grow and influence.


Think about your work environment. Is it defined by how you fit, or refined by what you build?

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