Good corporate culture has a negative side

Corporate Culture

Corporate culture has been a major business topic over the past few years, although it’s probably for different reasons than you think. Now, however, we might have arrived at a tipping point here — one of the most popular articles on Fast Company right now, for example, is entitled “Two Big Reasons Why Work Culture Is Overrated.” There’s a couple of similar articles around these days, one of which I’ll link below. First, though, I think we need to understand a little bit more about what “corporate culture” really means.

Corporate culture is, essentially, a buzzword

I very much believe in ideas about corporate culture. If you’ve ever read this blog even once, you’d know and understand that. But the term itself is a buzzword, and here’s why.

First off, corporate culture is like the Supreme Court’s famous old pornography definition: “You know it when you see it.”

You can’t explain it to others and push it hardcore in a job interview. You get a job, you work there, you interact with people, and you see the culture. Corporate culture evolves relative to hiring decisions the company makes, market conditions, office space, etc. It’s fluid. It’s not “We have a good culture!” or “We have a hard-working culture!” There are no fixed attributes. Corporate culture changes and grows.

That is Tier I.

Tier II is that, to many people — specifically executives of companies — “corporate culture” is fluffy bullshit. They came up on margins, growth, revenue plays, and “looking at the financials.” Many of them view corporate culture as some crap that millennials are probably demanding. “Ugh,” they grouse, totally forgetting that they were the same way in their 20s. We love to breathlessly generalize about generations, but we’re often wrong when we do it.

For executives, topics like “corporate culture” or “employee engagement” are leadership hacks. Give ’em free waffles and we’ll pay ’em less. Let them leave at 2pm some Fridays — but they better be answering email until midnight, goddamn it! — and, again, we’ll pay ’em less.

So a topic like corporate culture can sound good, but to the highest levels of decision-makers, it’s mostly a consultant-driven scam to keep money in their pockets.

Corporate culture: The invisible side

Here’s a quick little intro. People always claim that “employees leave managers, not jobs.” That’s mostly true! However — good people leave good managers too! And, uh, that’s bad for your company. So “good managers” is a great idea, right? But it has an invisible side.

So too does corporate culture.

This new article, “The Dark Side Of High Employee Engagement,” gets to it in this paragraph:

Although many studies show that people with positive mindsets tend to have more ideas, most leaders find that real innovation and change requires a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo to drive people forward in a purposeful way. When it comes to engagement, it is possible that proud and motivated workers resist new ways of doing things because change seems counter-intuitive, or even heretic, to them. In line, research shows that people who are optimistic about their performance stop trying to get better whereas frustrated and dissatisfied people tend to find creative breakthroughs when incentivized and supported in the right way. Thus the danger for leaders is that an engaged workforce becomes complacent or arrogant if it isn’t self-critical enough. Unsurprisingly, the last 30 years have been littered with companies that were deeply proud of what they were doing but not dissatisfied or paranoid enough to stay ahead of the competition — Nokia, Kodak and Yahoo! are just a few examples. Needless to say, progress is generally driven by people who reject the status quo and are dissatisfied enough to seek to change it.

“Complacent or arrogant” is a good pull-out there. If you think about the worst people you’ve ever worked with, chances are some of them fall into those two buckets. Yea?

Corporate culture: The fork in the road

Now we’re at a crucial intersection. See:

  • People want to work in good, productive examples of a corporate culture
  • Bosses don’t really care and want to make money for themselves
  • But bosses need to recruit and hire people, because God knows they don’t wanna drive the actual work
  • So they need this corporate culture to get the right people (“A-Players,” LOL)
  • But now if they have this corporate culture, they won’t innovate?

What the hell do you do now on corporate culture?

Having a mostly-good corporate culture: Some steps

First step: Care. Amazingly, this is the first step on most things in life. It’s that way for corporate culture and employee engagement, too. If you don’t care, don’t try to move forward. It’ll just be a joke.


Second step: Define. Most organizations compile a list of nouns and adjectives, call it “core values,” and slap it on multiple walls. It’s never again discussed until an exec wants someone fired, at which point they screech “That’s not within our core values!” Meanwhile the exec just texted a pic of his dong to that new girl in HR, but hey, that’s within scope. If core values don’t evolve and grow, you have no corporate culture. You just have a list of words.

Third step: Plan. You know something that’s funny? We still evaluate and compare companies by industry, even though industry comparisons mean nothing anymore. Apple is basically a music company, a health-care company, etc. Google is a car company, a cab company, etc. So you need to think about your company differently — what do you really do? — and then create a plan around that, not around what you think you do.

Fourth step: Make measurement decisions. Execs love to bark that “what’s measured is what matters.” In reality, most execs couldn’t analyze data if it was their only pathway to a life preserver, but let’s gloss that over for now. Because of “The Spreadsheet Mentality,” you better have a way to measure corporate culture. Otherwise no one high-up will care.

Fifth step: Tie it to the bottom line. Again, only way to make most decision-makers care. Usually this is about turnover and cost of hiring processes, etc. The problem here is that so much of the hiring process is now automated that companies are keeping costs down. Execs love it. (In reality, they probably never think about it.)

That’s a five-step initial primer on getting to a good corporate culture, but of course, any of these lists will just scratch the surface. Your corporate culture is an organically-emerging aspect of many other factors.

But I keep going back to the first step above. If you want a good corporate culture, you need to care. If you don’t care, what’s the point of even having one?

Ted Bauer