Culture is an elusive concept - but don’t fall into the trap of “anything goes”. How you define it matters. Simply because the things you measure will always determine what you try to change. With a hammer in hand, you only see nails. So choose carefully from that toolbox. In this piece we explain how we think it makes sense to talk about company culture.
August 6, 2020
Photo by Ramiz Dedaković on Unsplash
Can a culture even be cute?
One of my kids’ favorite bedtime stories is called 100 of the most disgusting animals in the world. And yes, it features stories about maggots and brain-eating parasites and other stuff that definitely disturbs my night time peace, but is apparently the stuff of dreams for pre-schoolers.
But that’s not the point. The point is that the author of this beloved book - a biologist - introduces the book by saying that he never thought that he would write a book such as this - in fact, it almost seems unethical to him. The reason being that animals aren’t per se disgusting, they just have fascinatingly distinctive ways of adapting to their environment and have evolved to fit in their own, particular way.
In much the same way that this biologist reacts to the labeling of respectively “cute” or “gross” animals, I, as a social scientist, cannot help but pause when company culture is discussed in terms of "good" or "bad" culture.
As if to signify that somewhere someone (and probably Netflix or Google) found the secret recipe for success and crafted a culture containing the 12 essential traits worth replicating.
Does this mean that all organizations should be Google or Netflix? (And that all the species in the animal kingdom should just throw in the towel and go extinct because: Kittens, how would you want to be anything other than that?!)
The tool you pick up from the toolbox matters
When it comes to defining company culture the jury has in no way reached a unanimous verdict. There is, unfortunately, no authority we can turn to for a definitive answer on what it is or how we manage it.
I want to illustrate two distinct ways of speaking about company culture that can have a great impact on how you understand it, measure it, and tackle it.
Company culture as a gold standard
Company culture as an ecosystem
I won’t pretend that these two make up a comprehensive list, but rather I want to point out the consequences of speaking about culture in one way or the other.
So let’s first look into a typical way of talking about culture by measuring it against a gold standard.
I once toured the office of a good friend who worked for a US tech giant. And I say toured because I was basically invited in to see the sights: The massive 24H open restaurant, the lounges intended for creative work sessions, the foosball tables, the in-house hair salon. You get where I’m going.
This was a place where people were allowed to hang out, where there was a lot of consideration for employees, an active community. Something to unite on. A great culture. (Which was not to go home, more or less).
The our-ping-pong-tables-are-a-testament-to-our-great-culture has been contradicted many times. But it still makes sense to step into the shoes of this argument - simply because it’s more prevalent than you might think.
What lies behind my friend’s descriptions of a company with a “great culture” is a singling-out of things that are more about culture than others.
The ping-pong table might be a clichée but think of how often we encounter evaluations of a company’s culture based on social gatherings, employees all sporting company branded apparel or whether there is a “too strong” culture of bonding over whiskey and cars (or the opposite).
All of these evaluations are based on the assumption that the company culture lives within certain more culture-dense phenomena - as opposed to just everyday actions.
Getting geeky, this reflects the Latin root of the word culture that (at some point in history) came to mean cultivated - the most refined version of something.
It is from this concept that we have a distinction between a high-culture exposing the most refined talents and a lay culture hardly worthy of mention. Think of how museums used to treat the finer arts as compared to pop culture.
In this way, having a culture is to be cultured.
By today’s standards, the height of sophistication might not be powdered wigs or renaissance paintings but other trends that set the gold standard like how relaxed (ping-pong table), generous (free lunch), or progressive (flat structures) the company is.
In this sense, speaking about “strong” or “good” cultures makes sense, because having strong traditions is comparable, and having a very active social profile can be measured.
And speaking in terms of what you measure and what you try to fix, this gives you an instant toolbox of things to fix.
The main problem with this is that it’s a bit like measuring the quality of your life by the sum of birthday presents you’ve gotten. It’s a measurement of something alright, but not really of the thing you were trying to capture.
When you pull in opposite directions something will break
Now let's take a look at a completely different way of imagining culture as an ecosystem.
A few years ago, while doing research at a medium-sized Danish manufacturing business I came across an interesting paradox between two of the company’s vice presidents.
One was extremely happy with the tempo, direction, and “spirit” of the organization. To him, this was a perfect contrast to his former job at a public company, where he felt that every innovation worth seeking was killed by the need to satisfy shareholders in time for the next quarterly report.
The other was on the contrary deeply frustrated by just those aspects of her new job. She had been headhunted because of her ability to create results but felt that this – family-owned – company suffered from a consensus-seeking culture that prevented her from securing the mandate to create the results she was brought on to deliver.
The consensus-seeking culture that the female VP was addressing had to do with the everyday habits, deeply rooted assumptions, values, and common-sense that had over time become this force-of-nature going up against what - to her - was rational and necessary workflows.
Likewise, the male VP who was praising the company’s culture of innovation attributed this to the economic structure of the company and the values behind it: Was the goal of leadership to grow fast and produce quick profits or grow steadily and securely?
Both of these accounts underscore an understanding of culture as a system of practices and values that is defined by the people that make up the organization. Whether leadership, engineers, or manufacturing workers.
These two VPs represented diametrically different values: She was motivated by career progression, getting compensation, and titles that portrayed her worth and taking on a lot of responsibility in centralized, effective decisions.
He was motivated by flat structures, collaboration, and an ethic of producing sensibly and sustainably.
Neither of these profiles is good or bad per se. They’re just good at different things. (Remember the disgusting animals?)
But getting these to being aligned on the same strategy would be hard.
And making them happy with the same working environment even harder.
The two perspectives I've presented in this piece map out crucial differences in how you understand, measure, and tackle culture.
The point that I want to make is that this perspective on culture - as an ecosystem of values and practices - is the key to assessing not whether a culture is simply good or bad, but the kind of culture an organization has. And not least what it takes for employees to thrive and succeed within it.