The "Culture" Quandary

“That’s just part of the culture here.” 

That phrase... Ohhhh, that phrase. If you’ve ever been recruited to or started a new job at a quasi-modern company, I’m certain that you’ve heard that phrase. Unfortunately, from that phrase alone, you can’t actually tell if the thing being referenced is positive or negative. Did someone just throw an impromptu party to celebrate a team success? Or is someone gloating in a teammate’s face after outperforming him this quarter? From the phrase alone, it's impossible to know. 

That’s a problem. 

I was recently having a 2:00am banter/beer session about org structure, as I’m sure most of you regularly have, when my friend Ian challenged me on something I’d never been challenged on before, and it gave me pause. I had been talking about where the limits of the Holacratic system laid compared to where the inputs of people at the company practicing it came into play (See? You've had that conversation before), and I mentioned that certain things—like a bias toward mentorship—required a strong company culture to complement the system, which compelled Ian to ask what I actually meant by “a strong company culture.” I had to admit, I was caught off guard. It felt so obvious to me that I just assumed everyone knew what that meant. After all, it’s just who we are, right? However, the longer I fumbled through trying to articulate an intelligent, non-circular response, the more it became clear to me that this needed some deeper delving. 

After a period of reflection and some heated debates with friends and colleagues, I’ve decided on this simple definition of what “company culture” actually means: 

A company’s culture is simply the way in which it brings its values to life.

A mission/vision/cause reflects a belief. It's a direction. Values are the manner in which you allow your employees to conduct themselves while marching toward that goal. Therefore, while a mission/vision/cause may be hard to embody daily, values, by their very nature are meant to be constantly practiced. The environment resulting from this practice is the observable “company culture.” 

Often company culture is confused with mere traditions—the quirkier, the better. However, traditions and ceremonies are just a couple of ways that culture is brought to life, and not all traditions qualify as “culture.” When a clear connection cannot be drawn between a tradition and a company value, one of two things must be true: 

  1. The company’s values aren’t accurately captured/expressed
  2. It’s just a thing you do that isn’t actually moving you toward the mission/vision/cause of your company

Here’s an example: 

Company XYZ

Our Mission is to build systems that empower the individual so that they can solve important problems facing humanity.

Our Values are:

  • Keep it simple

  • Always chase the better version of yourself

  • Trust each other

  • Practice kindness

  • Make the responsible choice

A couple cool things about our culture: We have a casual dress code and all the amenities you could want--a full kitchen, nap rooms, and a terrace overlooking the city. Also, on Fridays we all get together and spend an hour publicly giving props to teammates that helped us out during that week. 

Focusing on the potentially “cultural” elements in that last bit—casual dress code, a kitchen, nap rooms, the cool building design, and the Friday props session. However, when you look at them closely, only one of them is tied to the values. The props session is a way that this company practices kindness, so that's a totally valid (and rad) cultural element. However, there really isn’t a direct tie into any of the company’s stated values when you examine the dress code or the amenities. Sure, you might be able to do some conceptual yoga and twist one or two to fit in a way that’s loosely related, but odds are that these elements really just came out of wanting employees to be comfortable at work. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. Is it “part of the culture?” No

The same can be said about things at a company that are viewed in a more contentious light. Things like, “Oh, we throw you right into the fire here! There’s a real steep learning curve.” If you don’t have anything in your values around learning by doing or constant experimentation, then it’s more likely that you’re using that part of "your culture” to cover up a lack of attention to the onboarding process. 

Great company culture is intentional, and the strength of any company's culture can be measured by how easy it is for outsiders to discern the company values from observing its employees & practices. And intention doesn't equate to buying a specific set of furniture/amenities and doing a prescribed set of activities that magically result in “a company culture;” rather, as your company scales and grows you need to look at things through the lens of, “Is this really in accordance with our values & mission, or is it just something we’ve gotten in the habit of doing/not doing?” If the latter is true, you need to make the decision if something in the values needs to change, or if maybe you can take the spirit of the habit/tradition and re-engineer it to make actually fit with who you want to be. When I hear clients & business owners say, “Things seem to be going downhill culturally,” or, "I'm concerned that our company culture is struggling,” I typically find that leadership hasn't been disciplined in making sure that their company values were clearly articulated, communicated, and most importantly, implemented—not only in traditions but in core functions like hiring practices, compensation models, progression systems, etc. So, be careful! If you find yourself carrying out most of your workplace traditions based on inertia rather than intent, you’ll find that when you hit that surge of growth you’ve always dreamed about, it could quickly become a nightmare.