The only thing killing your corporate culture is your corporate culture

It’s pretty clear people agree that corporate culture is a big problem. There is blog post after blog post talking about what to do, or not to do, to create a great culture. Sadly, most of it though boils down to: Company X has a great corporate culture so just go cargo cult whatever magic sauce they’ve got going for them. Today’s suggestion is fix your e-mails dammit, if we could only stop sending such motivation destroying e-mails. Other days it’s those soul sucking meetings, won’t someone think of the agendas!?

Honestly, I think there is a critical ‘correlation equals causation’ fallacy going around here, which is that corporate culture can ever be a symptom rather than the cause. The fact is, culture is what is at the root of everything and everything that represents a good corporate culture stems from it rather than contributing to it.

This post entitled The Culture Myth provides a good explantation. Merely copying the positive behaviors of a good culture will not, by itself, lead to a good culture—in fact, this is far more likely to frustrate than to elate employees. Instead, the author suggests that there are three key pillars that can be used to gauge a good culture: vision, trust and feedback.

Vision: Is there a vision and purpose to your company and its culture, is it well known and shared by all or hidden under a rock somewhere? Why do the members of your organization get up every morning and do what they do, other than a paycheque?

Trust: Do you feel trusted (or trust those around you)? Are you empowered to make the decisions you need to make to achieve the corporate vision. Can you change those things that need to be change or at least motivate that change and get a result? If not then it’s doubtful there is real trust.

Feedback: Does feedback matter to the organization or is it likely to work against you? Do you feel the need to “play at politics” with your suggestions and observations, or do you feel comfortable and encouraged to raise issues and conflict?

I also believe that there is one simple, surefire way to measure a culture problem, that is resentment. The effects of which are burnout and that all to familiar revolving door phenomena. And as anyone should know when a company leaks people, it always leaks its best people.

So with that said, is there anything anyone do about a poor corporate culture? I really hate to suggest this, the answer seems to be a pretty resounding no. At least I’ve seen no real concrete examples of it happening, but perhaps someone can provide one? Improving and bettering ourselves as individuals is a slow process even with hard work and the best of intentions, for an entire organization the pace can be pretty much glacial without, at a minimum, strong leadership and an organization truly committed to steer and propel the change.

The bright spot in all of this is that there are actually some places that appear to have already stated raising the bar on what defines a modern corporation. Places like Github, Balsamiq, 37 Signals and in particular Valve (this last one is an amazing read).

(My apologies that these are all tech company examples, but as they say, ‘write what you know.’)

Nonetheless, I still find it somewhat astounding how pervasive cultural dysfunction is, particularly given the impact it appears to be able to have on a company’s competitiveness. Though, I suppose that shouldn’t really surprise anyone all that much. I mean, if so many are willing to blithely cargo cult the entire product development process *cough*Scrum*cough* then why should we expect better when it comes to culture?

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