Your company culture is a meaningless platitude

Posted: June 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Startups | 44 Comments »

Johnny Carson as Carnac the MagnificentIn this envelope, I have your Company Culture.

We work hard, but value work/life balance.

We’re a team culture and we believe in individual empowerment.

We give back to the community, and have strong ethics.

We hire only the best people, support diversity, and promote growth and leadership in our employee ranks.

And more than anything we value our customers, our stockholders, and our employees.

That’s right – you’re GE! Or Wells Fargo.  Or Zillow

Company Culture is a very serious matter, put together after much employee feedback and deliberation, and carefully designed to capture the key things that make your company great.  It’s also a load of well-mixed fertilizer.

The Rule of Company Culture: It’s what makes your company different, not what makes it great.

Hire the best, teamwork, ethics… all meaningless platitudes.  Real company cultures are made of four things:

  1. Polarizing decisions
  2. Excesses
  3. Quirks
  4. Dysfunctions

Firmly choosing one side of the balance beamPolarizing decisions are what happens when a company decides not to compromise between two equally compelling but opposing imperatives.  Every company strikes a balance between work and play; that’s not company culture.  Company culture is investment banking’s mandatory 95 hour work weeks or Jackson Fish Market’s 12 weeks of vacation.  Every company has a balance of teamwork and individual contributorship – culture is ruthlessly pitting your people and teams against each other, or firing your best people because they’re not effective team members.  Other balances include great benefits versus lean operations, customers versus stockholders versus employees, and cheap products versus innovative quality products.  If you find yourself saying “we can do it all”, that’s great!  And you’re right, sort of.  Your attempts at balance are admirable and may be successful, but do not constitute a corporate culture.  That only comes from taking a stand on one end of the see-saw.

Excesses are aspects of culture that happen when companies take an indubitably good thing to its extreme.  For example, every company tries to hire great people.  But some will leave a position open for nine months, miss deadlines, and work its existing employees in to borderline revolt before hiring someone who’s even the tiniest compromise.  Every company should give back to the community, but there’s a line between a matching gifts program and Ben & Jerry’s that’s not easy to miss.  “Openness” is great – do the employees see the detailed company financials, and get notified when cash reserves are running low?  Corporate culture is what occurs in the margins when someone asks – “Well, I know that’s good, but isn’t it a bit much?”

Quirks are the safe, friendly, harmless, and most companies screw them up too.  A quirk is some point of weird distinction, neither wonderful nor terrible, that is distinct to the company and integral to the employee experience.  Casual fridays are policy; Dress Like Raymond Day is a quirk. When the company picks up your nighttime MBA, that’s a great benefit – but when Teachstreet (a company that helps people find local and online classes) gets its employees together to learn how to build kites, now that’s a quirk.  It’s not to say that corporate mandates can’t make great quirks, although the best ones often arise spontaneously from the teams themselves.  But great quirks take their power from the team, their distinctiveness, and the culture itself.

There’s one more aspect of corporate culture that’s important if you’re measuring rather than designing: the Dysfunction.  A dysfunction is the mirror image of an excess – not enough of something that’s important.  Every company has problems, and most of the problems are present to some degree everywhere.  Those aren’t dysfunctions.  A dysfunction creeps in to the corporate culture when it’s distinctive and impactful – much like a positive culture trait.  Typical dysfunctions include management and employee antipathy, severe lack of ethics, and disregard for customers.  You know them when you see them. One thing that may not be obvious – sometimes a dysfunction is a direct causal result of the company culture.  Backstabbing and rumor-mongering may be the price you pay for rewarding individual initiative and achievement.  A general lack of spending discipline may be the unwanted side effect of generous benefits and an employee-first culture.

The great corporate cultures are a simple mix: a few polarizing decisions or excesses, with a handful of quirks mixed in.  Preferably quirks that reinforce the rest of the culture.

Later, I’ll post a bit about some examples of company cultures and guidelines on how to be deliberate in creating one.

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  • Dave Schappell

    From personal experience, I’ve also learned that company culture isn’t something that can be predetermined. We definitely had goals when we established TeachStreet to be a wonderful place for employees, where we’d embrace a lifelong learning culture, with a minimum of bureaucracy.

    But, we’ve wavered between the poles, with almost no fun/spontaneity (when personal stress levels were peaking) to almost a lack of discipline at times (employees rolling in at 11am, and departing at 5:30pm). And, things definitely weren’t wonderful when we had to lay people off last year.

    There are definite highs and lows, and I’m glad that you pointed out that a dysfunction can often be a causal result of the company culture, and that you’ll always be swaying back and forth between your life goals and the company needs — I’ve never seen it otherwise.

    But, if you continue to make the effort, and you listen to feedback from the team and truly care about one another, you can create an environment that’s special — just expect to have to keep working at it.

    Great post.

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  • Edward

    Great post!
    I work for NixonMcInnes here in the UK and think we have a pretty damn culture.
    Open books, flexible hours, democratic decision making from the small things like what cool stuff should we hang on the walls to who we hire and which companies we want to work with, proper individual empowerment etc etc.
    We might tick every box in your first paragraph but we truly strive to uphold those principles.. I think its alot easier to do in a democratic company when the mandate isnt just handed down from the top though.

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  • laszlo kovari

    Insightful post.
    Got me thinking: Although there is obviously no such thing as undifferentiated culture, maybe a more important point here is differentiation vs. non-differentiation.

    Personally I think that using the word culture in a corporate setting is abuse :-)

  • Dan Shapiro

    Fair enough, but there's definitely something about certain companies that needs a name. Great companies do have something that differentiates them from everyone else, and it sure feels a lot like a culture in the traditional sense.

  • Dan Shapiro

    Open books is definitely distinctive. So are flexible hours and democratic decision making. It sounds like the foundations of a very distinct culture to me.

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  • Daniel Ha

    I was roped in with Carnac the Magnificent, but the post didn't disappoint either.

    Most companies talk about emphasizing a great culture and many really believe in it. I think your point is spot on– it's really the unique things that make up the culture, not the smiles and sunshine promises of most organizations.

    Still figuring it out in our company here as well.

  • Dan Shapiro

    Thanks Daniel. I do believe that you can define cultures – they're not just emergent phenomena – but inevitably things do take on somewhat of a life of their own.

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  • Crimson June

    lol.. Dilbert

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  • GlennKelman

    Fantastic post Dan, which expressed something essential I've always felt about the depressing sameness of mission statements and corporate values. One other company which has developed a distinct voice in its values is Atlassian:
    Lately though, I've come to feel that being novel in your values isn't as important as saying something basic and good that you sincerely believe in, that everyone in a company can understand.

    For example, when you say I love you to someone, you're using words we've all heard before, but that doesn't mean the statement is meaningless. When we tell one another at Redfin to do the right thing, it sounds boring and obvious, but just the act of repeating it so often serves its own purpose — and dressing that up in a way that's unique — perhaps that serves less of a purpose than I once believed. I hope this isn't conceding that sometimes, our innermost self, who we really are — is just a cliche. I don't believe that either.

    Anyway, I really liked the post. I'm adding your blog to my feed…

  • Dan Shapiro

    Thanks Glenn. One point I don't address in this post is that as companies grow past the startup phase, they develop a need for platitudes. Drilling people on the basics matters. Wal-mart starts every day by making 1.6 million people chant that “customers are #1″ (, and that's not a bad thing. It's quality control. But I don't really think of it as corporate culture.

    Well, OK. Maybe the chanting part qualifies as a quirk…

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  • Jason Yip

    What are your thoughts on Edgar Schein's model?

    Important to distinguish “espoused values” from culture which also includes actual behaviour, produced artefacts, and basic assumptions that aren't necessarily spoken or written.

  • Dan Shapiro

    Interesting. Sounds like a broad and useful framework for comprehensive analysis of a company culture.

  • Dan Shapiro

    Interesting. Sounds like a broad and useful framework for comprehensive analysis of a company culture.

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  • Keith Simpson

    Very interesting post! Your way of thinking and defining culture is very insightful and useful for management in startup situations.

    It's important to build a strong company culture from the start. Too many companies fail to do this and end up being forced into a vanilla culture defined by the big players in their industry. Once in this rut a it can be very time consuming and expensive to shift to a new company culture.

    Though many downplay it, companies would be wise to remember that a strong differentiated culture can be a huge competitive advantage if utilized properly.

  • Dan Shapiro

    Thanks Keith. I think so, and the authors of Built to Last (which has a bunch of methodology issues, but don't get me started) concluded so as well.

  • laszlo kovari

    or maybe this something is simply differentiation. while cultures are definitely differentiated, differentiation does not automatically mean culture in the traditional sense :-)
    but i am just joking: point is taken and agreed.

  • Meaghen Keyser

    Thanks for this post. Gives me a lot to think about as i continue to try and define our company culture as we grow and move forward. Will you still be posting “some examples of company cultures and guidelines on how to be deliberate in creating one”? Looking forward to reading more…

  • Dan Shapiro

    It's in the todo queue! But the todo queue fills faster than it empties. ;)

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  • Christie Scott

    Ha ha! Yes, you are right, Dan! Thanks for the post, looking forward to more on this subject!

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  • dougluce

    Publicized Corporate Culture is what management creates through its best effort to control. Actual corporate culture is what management creates despite its best effort to control.

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