Culture is critically important. Throw pillows are not. So, I’m always perplexed that people want to talk about throw pillows.

What is a throw pillow?

A tiny square cushion that sits on a couch or bed, that is superfluous to the function of the said couch or bed.

They look cute enough, and take a nice photo, but to sleep in the bed, you have to remove the cushions.

Unless you’re alone, to sit on the couch, you have to remove them to make more space for sitting.

How do I feel about throw pillows?

I’m not a fan.

Or perhaps, more correctly, I see them way down on the list of what matters most.

Give me a warm room, a comfortable couch, a decent size coffee table, and a reasonable TV screen, and I’m good to go to watch a movie or the footy.

Throw ten ‘throw pillows’ into the equation, and everything is more fussy and colourful, but there’s no room to sit down.

Throw them on the bed, and as you clear them off for sleeping, you then have to be conscious where you left them, to avoid falling over them during the night.

So, you do you, if you love them, but don’t pretend they’re anything other than a (potentially artistic) flourish. They’re a distraction.

What are the throw pillows of culture?

Brown bag lunches, once-a-month mandated birthday cakes for everyone born in March, fruit baskets, mandatorily described dressing up for Christmas parties (and Christmas hams for that matter), and even Friday night drinks.

These are the things that take time, clutter up agendas, consume committees, and create long lists of ‘all the things we’re doing’, that really don’t matter much at all.

They’re a distraction from the things that matter.

What’s important in culture?

The things that are important in culture, are the things that create the inspiration and environment for people to thrive.

And we know what they are:

  • Purpose – and meaningful work
  • Relationships – people that matter to you and you matter to them
  • Agency – and freedom to control your work as an equal adult
  • Accountability – Having people have high expectations of you and you of them
  • All built on a foundation of fairness and safety

Let’s dig into each, just for a moment.

Purposeful and meaningful work

There’s a good reason that this is the backbone of Article 23 of the International Declaration of Human Rights – The right to meaningful work.

Refer to Hertzberg’s HBR article for a refresher. As good today as it was in 1967 – “One more time. How do you motivate employees. It’s all about the work” talks to the very essence of making sure the actual work is the centre of the conversation about work.

And the work to do? Thoughtfully design the work so that is meaningful and purposeful. So that it makes a difference to someone and adds value. Every person should see the impact of their work.


If you’re going to turn up every day, and throw yourself in to giving your best, you want to be around people who care about you, and are happy to see you. Who include you, and care about you.

The work to do? Make sure that every person on your team has people around them who appreciate them, know them, ‘see’ them for who they are and what they bring. Make sure not one person walks in and walks out, without anyone appreciating their contribution.


Agency is another word for not being micro-managed. Not being boxed in to too small a space. For having freedom to control your work and how you do it, as an equal adult.

The work to do? Get out of the way. Give people as much space as they can handle to run and do their best. Make sure that everyone can play their A Game, but equally importantly, that when you, or they, are playing their B Game, that those relationships will kick in, and there’s even more space to step up and grow.


Having people have high expectations of you and you of them, is fundamental to all good teams, good organisations, and good culture.

You turn up with your best shot at your A Game, and everyone else does too. You depend on each other, and completely appreciate the interdependency you have with each other. You do well, I do well, we do well.

That foundation of fairness and safety

Fairness is a given, but there’s a thousand conversations about safety right about now.

Impossible to do it justice in a few words, but let’s get the basics. Safety is physical and psychological.

The right to make a mistake, and ask questions in the moment, even dumb questions. It’s the feeling that you have all the information without needing to ask.

But it’s also collective. That people have your back like you have theirs. You’re looking out for each other. You’re including each other.

It’s not cotton woolly, explaining how fragile you are every day. It’s about assuming everyone needs some cotton wooling sometimes, and other times, your role is to be the cotton wool for someone else. Its about helping each other find their strength, and covering them on those occasions when its missing.

Its about trying to never drop the ball – respecting the team around you for doing the same, but knowing if you ever do, they’ve got you too.

More of that another time, but for now the work to do is:

  1. Make sure things are fair. Properly fair. For everyone.
  2. Assume people are great and help them get there
  3. Have people’s back, and trust they’ll have yours.

The long list versus the short (and relevant) list?

So, there’s important work to do.

Designing meaningful work, making sure relationships are healthy and everyone is in it together, ensuring agency is available to and expected from everyone, ensuring accountability is a given, and that everyone is carrying their share of the weight.

That work, in and of itself, is hard and takes time and thought.

So, don’t clutter the list of important and relevant work, with things that don’t matter.

Culture work is a ‘no throw pillow zone’.

So, why do we do lightweight stuff?

Because it’s easier than the relevant stuff.

Designing work in meaningful ways, building good relationships and resolving bad ones, expecting high levels of agency knowing on any given day, some people won’t play their A Game, and then ensuring accountability is expected by everyone and delivered fairly, is hard to get right. It’s a short and powerful list and every bullet point matters.

So, given that short difficult list, why do we find ourselves doing brown bag lunches? Because it feels like you’re doing something and they’re easier than doing things that matter.

If your roof leaks, it’s hard to fix. It will take time and money to stop the rain coming in.

If you don’t have a couch, you have to save to buy one.

But throw pillows – a quick trip to any home store and you can have twenty.

They’ll be useless under a leaky roof, and they’ll be lying on the floor without a couch, but they’re easy to grab, and all the colour and tassels will make it feel like you’ve done a lot.

Until it rains. Or people need to sit down.


Special paragraph on brown bag lunches

Brown bag lunches are the epitome of throw pillows.

A flurry of colour and movement, for little impact.

They require admin and PR, to invite people and encourage attendance. Lots of emails and planning.

It feels like learning, but no one learns much in 45minutes.

It’s a flurry of activity in the middle of a busy day, and when someone says “you’re doing nothing for culture or learning”, you can list off the topics you ate brown bag lunches to.

But you will need to remember that everyone who attended the lunch, still needs meaningful work, good relationships, etc etc.

Maybe the time would be better spent throwing a cushion or two at each other. That would at least be fun and get the endorphins pumping

The moral to the story

Culture work is important, but only when you do the stuff that matters. A room of throw cushions – whatever the colour or volume - without a couch, or under a leaky roof, is pretty useless. That said, if you’re not up for fixing the couch, then a nest of throw pillows is better than nothing on a cold floor.