Reflections

Even "great cultures" discriminate

Trying to manage a diverse and complex organization? Building a "great culture" might not be the right tool. Here's why.

August 13, 2020
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5
min. read
Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

Straight-talking about culture is very dear to us at Platypus. And not just for the sport of it, but because clarity and consistency is the key to creating actionable insights into your company culture.

Previously we covered a distinction between two popular ways of talking about company culture:

  • Company culture as something that can be measured against a gold standard and declared “good” or “bad” - or even “great”.
  • Or company culture as an ecosystem made up of the everyday practices, visions, values, and habits of the people in the organization.

In this piece, I’ll show you what a difference this makes to the task of managing culture.

Great cultures are designed for great employees - or is it the other way around?

I have a friend who, some years ago, worked for a US tech giant famous for its culture. One time I got a tour of the sights. And giving a tour genuinely made sense because (what was perceived to be) the culture could in fact be shown off - even if there wouldn’t have been any people around: Restaurants open 24/7, lounges, foosball tables, café areas, hairdresser, etc.

What apparently made this culture “great” was how it materialized an idea about the employees as creative, ambitious, and unconstrained by the (once) normal bureaucracy of corporate organizations. (Instead of white collars employees can wear branded hoodies!)

All of these objects and artifacts carried a heavy symbolic, and practical, meaning that framed this as a creative environment for people who worked hard and played hard.

Crafting culture by crafting attractive identities for employees has been around - especially in tech - for quite a while now. And having a “great culture” has become synonymous with having a common goal and a strong sense of belonging to that mission. Meaning you join a company with a “great culture” to get a piece of that identity - and in return, you give great commitment because you’re part of something bigger than just a job. (A strategy whose ethics has been seriously questioned by the corona crisis)

Who is a “great culture” actually great for?

The funny thing about that tour around my friend’s offices was that the one thing that really stuck with me was a story he told about one of his colleagues.

He described it as an oddity. The most peculiar thing.

There was this woman in a neighboring department that had been with the company for, like, three years (sic).

She even had a baby and then returned to the same job after her maternity leave.

Her managers didn’t know what to do with her because every management tool in their book was about coaching employees towards progression (either up or out) - not staying satisfied with just doing their job. How odd was that!  

Or at least that was what I was supposed to recognize.

To me (at the time pregnant with my first child) this didn’t seem like that much of an oddity. I could relate to not rushing to change jobs every second year once I had a baby on my arm.

But then again I could clearly see that it would be hard meeting sympathy for her priorities in this environment.

What does this tell us?

It tells us that even “great cultures” promote specific values and excludes others.

The problem is that you avoid responsibility for what that environment promotes - and what kind of employees it promotes (both literally and figuratively).

Using a “gold standard” definition of company culture - even unknowingly - leaves you blind to considering what actually gets favored within that culture. And it does so because it rests on an assumption that culture is something you can do right or wrong.

And maybe more importantly it leaves you without tools for managing the complexity of an organization made up of individuals with diverse lives, values, and priorities.

Go deep on what your culture actually is

Managing diversity and the complexity of your organization requires a perspective that acknowledges that culture is made up of the nitty-gritty habits, values, and practices of the people in your organization - and that together these create an ecosystem where certain “species” can thrive.

Thinking about culture as an ecosystem is about realizing that any environment will always favor something - and then engaging in the discipline of managing the pulleys and levers of the environment that your organization is.

The beauty of this is the actionability it gives you. Because this is a way of approaching culture from a dynamic and relational point of view.

It’s an approach that gives you the flexibility of looking into the machine room of culture and fine-tune (or even re-construct) the gears to make it function for who you need to be.

But just as importantly, it gives you the responsibility of owning up to what and who is allowed to thrive within your company culture.

It’s not the straightforward question of good or bad culture (that will always be discriminatory in one way or the other).

It’s about looking at your actual culture and recognizing how you want to manage it.
  • Do you want to know what forces pull in opposite direction within your organization?
  • Do you want to know whether a candidate will be able to succeed in your culture?
  • Do you want to know what values and practices are dominating in your organization?
  • Do you want to know why it is hard to change habits on inclusion or other changes?
  • Do you want to know where your biggest challenges for implementing new strategies lie?
  • Or rather: Do you want to know how much of a turnaround it is even possible to make, looking soberly at the reality of your organization?

At the end of the day, it’s about answering those (hard!) questions: Who do you want to be and what will you allow to thrive?

That’s why we made Platypus.

As a tool for measuring the values and practices of your people and turning this into actionable data for managing your actual culture.

Written by
Sigrid
Leilund