What Companies Don't Get About Corporate Culture

Article by Ted Bauer

Corporate culture has been a major topic of discussion over the past few years – probably for different reasons than you think. Now, however, we might have arrived at a tipping point. One of the most popular articles on Fast Company right now, for example, is entitled "Two Big Reasons Why Work Culture Is Overrated." A couple of similar articles are making the rounds as well. I'll discuss one of them below, but first, I think we need to understand a little bit more about what "corporate culture" really is.

Corporate Culture Is, Essentially, a Buzzword

I very much believe in many of the ideas surrounding corporate culture, but the term itself is a buzzword.

Corporate culture is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous pornography definition: You know it when you see it. You can't explain it to others. 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. You can't say "We have a good culture!" or "We have a hard-working culture!" There are no fixed attributes. Corporate cultures change and grow all the time.

That is one reason why company culture is a buzzword.

Another reason is that, to many people  –  specifically executives of companies  – corporate culture is fluffy bullsh*t. Executives came up on margins, growth, revenue plays, and "looking at the financials." Many of them view corporate culture as some crap that millennials are demanding. "Ugh," they grouse, totally forgetting that they were the same way in their 20s. We love to make breathless generalizations about generations, but we're often wrong when we do.

For executives, topics like "corporate culture" and "employee engagement" are leadership hacks. Give 'em free waffles and you can pay 'em less. Let 'em leave at 2 P.M. some Fridays and, again, you can pay 'em less. (They better be answering their emails until midnight, though!)

Corporate culture can sound like a good thing, but to the highest levels of decision-makers, it is mostly a consultant-driven scam to keep money in their pockets.

The Invisible Side of Corporate Culture

People always claim that "employees leave managers, not jobs." That's mostly true, but good people leave good managers, too! And that's bad for your company. So having good managers is a great idea, right? But it does come with an invisible, darker side.

So does corporate culture. The Harvard Business Review article "The Dark Side Of High Employee Engagement" gets to that dark side 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 counterintuitive, 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 quote there. If you think about the worst people you've ever worked with, chances are some of them fall into those two buckets.

Corporate Culture: The Fork in the Road

Now, we're at a crucial intersection:

- People want to work in good, productive examples of corporate culture.

- Bosses don't really care and just want to make money for themselves.

- But bosses need to recruit and hire people, because God knows they don't want to drive the actual work.

- So, bosses need this corporate culture to get the right people ("A-players," LOL)

- But if they have highly engaged corporate cultures, they won't innovate?


What are you supposed to do about corporate culture?

Steps Toward Building a Mostly Good Culture

Step 1: Care

Amazingly, this is the first step toward most things in life. Corporate culture and employee engagement are no exception. If you don't care, don't try to move forward. It'll just be a joke.

Step 2: Define

Most organizations compile a list of nouns and adjectives, call it "core values," and slap it on multiple walls. The list is never discussed again – until an exec wants someone fired, at which point they'll screech, "That's not within our core values!" (Meanwhile, the exec just sexted the 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.

Step 3: Plan

You know something funny? We still evaluate and compare companies by industry, even though industry delineations don't mean much anymore. Apple is basically a music company, a healthcare company, etc. Google is a car company, a cab company, etc.

You need to think about your company differently . What do you really do? Then, create a plan around that – not around what you think you do.

Step 4: Make Measurement Decisions

Execs love to bark that "what gets 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 over that for now. Because of the "Spreadsheet Mentality," you better have a way to measure corporate culture. Otherwise, no one high up the ladder will care.

Step 5: Tie It to the Bottom Line

Again, this is the only way to make most decision-makers care. You can usually frame this in terms of turnover and hiring costs.. The problem here is that so much of the hiring process is now automated that companies are keeping costs down already. Execs say they love it. (In reality, they probably never think about it.)

This is a five-step primer on getting to a good corporate culture, but of course, any list like this just scratches the surface. Your corporate culture is an organically emerging manifestation 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?

A version of this article originally appeared on 42Hire.com.

Ted Bauer does blogging, writing, thinking, freelance, ghostwriting – all that. Sign up for his newsletter here.