Culture

There is a problem with company culture. Let's fix it.

For now culture remains a mythical creature: Much talked about but never really verifiable.

May 4, 2020
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5
min. read
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

It’s pretty much everywhere: Talk about company culture. And what it means to the success of your organization.

In fact, I started writing this blog post because our growth hacker told me that company culture is a trending subject, and if we want to increase our number of readers on our blog we should definitely post about this.

Then she showed me a list of trending posts discussing themes such as: Millennials are motivated by your mission and culture; How to get a high-performance culture, or; XX won’t fix your toxic culture. The list of course goes on.

And what is symptomatic of that list is that it battles a beast of many heads.

The problems caused by a malfunctioning culture and the promised outcomes of a “good” culture are multiple and pretty diverse.

Culture is supposedly something akin to a brand, or even a lifestyle, that employees are attracted to and wish to identify with - and consequently something that any self-respecting organization needs to “get”. Same as any self-respecting teenager needs state-of-the-art sneakers.

At the same time it is the intangible spirit of the organization, cultivating the ground for management's efforts to up performance or engagement - or just the opposite.

Also it can apparently be either good or bad, suggesting that culture is somehow a universal scale for measuring the health of an organization - like a thermometer telling you whether you have a fever or not.

A crucial problem is that culture gets used as a “catch-all”

A way of grappling with that je-ne-sais-quoi of every organisation.

That thing you, on the one hand, don’t have any better word for, so it gets filed under “misc.”, and on the other hand holds the promise of being the key to all your (people) problems.

But the issue with this way of reasoning is, that company culture is used as a magic wand: Something completely lacking transparency that you can only hope has an effect.

We recently made a study of what challenges HR professionals faced within their organizations.

A major concern was to be able to validate their attempts to improve company culture.

I can’t blame them.

When I look at the varieties of topics and approaches discussed under the heading of company culture, it seems to me that HR is stuck with the herculean task of turning an fluffy concept of culture into predictable results.

The problem with the fluffy use of company culture is that it ends up as an empty container: All sorts of problems - and attempts at solutions - being poured into the same can and sold off as a cure-all.

But mixing together apples and oranges causes a huge problem.

Namely, because in the process we lose transparency and we lose accountability.

For now culture remains a mythical creature: Much talked about but never really verifiable

The issue is that HR professionals, managers and others trying to achieve xxx do not - unfortunately - live in the world of J. K. Rowling, gifted with the powers of magic.

Instead, they need to pick their battles and fight those that they can, in fact, win.

They need to be able to provide some kind of verification that the resources spent on improving company culture is a sound investment.

And to do that, they need culture to be less fluffy and more measurable.

Here we return to the problem of it all: All that talk of culture isn’t unfounded.

Culture matters. But the promises of culture runs the risk of being dropped on the floor because the evasiveness of the subject makes it unactionable.

But it needn’t be.

Therefore, to make it more actionable, we first need to engage in a conversation about what culture is. What building blocks it consists of.

Because only by engaging in the rigorous discipline of putting the right ingredients into the mix will it have the effect that organizations need in order to actually tackle their issues with culture - and for HR to be able to make culture a “must-win” battle for leadership.

So let’s explore how we move from culture as an empty container towards company culture as an actionable fact.

Written by
Sigrid
Leilund