The “New World” Company Culture

corporate culture chart

by Roger Reid

From industrial psychologists punctuating their holy mantra of principles, vision, and values with syncopated fist pumps, to CEO’s proudly pointing to mission statements full of nebulous jargon and philosophical doctrine, organizational culture has becoming the buzz-phrase in industry one-upmanship.

I’ve even read that college seniors are placing culture in the same priority as compensation: “I think Company A has a better culture, so that’s the one I want to work for.” Or, “You wouldn’t catch me even talking to anyone from company B. Its culture sucks.”

Organizational culture has traditionally referred to a company’s guiding philosophy, values, and beliefs, and how these often vague and subjective tenets are translated into real world attitudes, interpersonal strategies, and ethical priorities.

However, over the last decade, our definition of organizational culture has been in a state of flux—changing, expanding, and evolving from a set of principles, paradigms, and ideals to influence work-place behavior and performance into a much larger base of influence, often including tangible, value-added benefits for the employee.

This “New World” concept of workplace culture is becoming such a commonly used yardstick to measure environmental, emotional, and intellectual benefits, that even the most everyday and commonplace features of a company’s landscape are often interpreted as intentional expressions of culture. In this context, culture can mean anything from covered parking spaces and free coffee to casual Friday.

The result? As organizational culture shifts more toward an expression of tangible advantages, the idea of creating a positive, productive workplace becomes less about personal attitude and respect, and more about campus gyms, on-site daycare, and a staff nurse practitioner to hand out vitamin C pills during cold and flu season.

It poses an interesting question . . .

Is the popularity of culture—as a leading topic for positive change—creating unrealistic expectations in the minds of existing and future employees? And is it causing us to lose our perspective?
With cost-intensive benefits masquerading as cultural imperatives, the waters of entitlement have gone from murky to muddy. Especially since the large and growing pool of “desirable conveniences” are commonly, yet mistakenly used as metrics to measure the presence, effectiveness, and value of a company’s culture.

And that’s dangerous. Because when the money is flowing and profits are up, culture—under our New World definition— is a many-faceted reflection of the bottom line. Unfortunately, it’s also true when the intersecting lines on the whiteboard show profits plummeting through the floor.
This makes profits and culture—when measured as tangible, value-added employee benefits—not only interrelated, but lock-stepped in co-dependency. And make no mistake: It’s money first, culture second. Always. If you doubt the priority, try rating the culture behind the locked doors of an abandoned manufacturing plant, closed due to involuntary bankruptcy.

Let’s look at a real world example. Why does Google have a much-envied work environment that constantly puts the company on everyone’s list of top places to work?

Because Google makes lots of money. Presumably in excess of what is required to pay the on-going cost of operations, payroll and salary, research and development, funding employee benefit packages, and paying for upper management perks.

So when given the choice of whether to pay taxes on windfall profits or use tax deductible funds to the symbiotic benefit of employees, in the words of the most conservative accountant, “Why not?”
As long as the money continues to flow, life is good.

But things can change.

Markets crash. Customers go out of business. The competition reverse-engineers a company’s core product and duplicates it for a tenth of the cost. And for the sake of the organization—for its survival—the hard influences of financial continuity must take priority over the softer aspects of culture. If this possibility is not an inherent and transparent part of any practical attempt to influence day-to-day operations with culture, workers will feel betrayed and deceived when faced with the hard realities of reduced cash flow, cut-backs, layoffs, industry downturns, and a hundred other situations that can affect the company’s bottom line.

Under the New World definition of culture, employees MUST understand how the realities of business can affect their jobs and future security. They need to know the company isn’t bulletproof, and needs their support and dedication to thrive economically through good and lean times.

If you’ve been following me so far, you should be getting the idea that a healthy culture is a two-way street. Ideally, it promotes the important facets of employee satisfaction while making it clear these privileges cannot be taken for granted. In short, there is no reason why implementing a transparent, employee-appreciated culture can’t also benefit the financial success and longevity of the company.
And yet, translating this concept of reciprocity into reality is still a tall order for those who must promote compliance by example. Because regardless of how well-intentioned our efforts, we’re human. Someone will take advantage. A few will bend the rules. Others will break them. But that’s when culture becomes important—when it’s challenged. How management responds to its own violations is what makes culture genuine. Honoring and, if necessary, enforcing culture makes it a tangible part of the work environment. Using it selectively or making it subjective to political or positional interpretation reduces it to a bunch of meaningless rhetoric.

If you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to help develop, change, or influence a formal operating culture, the responsibility should not be underestimated. Get it right, and the company grows stronger, often more profitable, and becomes an enviable place to work. Screw it up and you won’t have enough fingers to plug the dike.

I was recently asked to create a set of cultural priorities for a small business startup whose owner was grappling with the challenges of managing an growing base of new employees. He asked for a detailed, ready-to-implement set of principles and standards, specifically customized for a “typical” but expanding service-oriented business.

Ignoring the incongruity—the rapid growth of his business made it anything but typical—I suggested an alternative. I offered to furnish a set of recommendations, affording him the opportunity to define his own cultural framework in collaboration with newly promoted team leaders and employees. Here’s what I feel were the five most important points from that list:

1. Avoid a Me Too approach. With all the attention and focus on culture, there’s a temptation to change, update, streamline, humanize, or otherwise transform a company’s culture simply to align the company’s image with popular values and trends—to be one of the good guys. This kind of motivation typically results in a lot of flowing rhetoric and poster-worthy phases of master-crafting the ideal workplace without any real influence or change to the environment—another example of a company’s cultural statement preaching a good story, but the reality of “business as usual” revealing the truth.

2. Make every employee aware of their responsibility for the on-going expense of a benefit-rich work environment. By realizing that tangible benefits come with a cost that directly affects profitability, it’s easier to understand the need for offsetting gains in productivity. As a result, workers are more likely to recognize and appreciate workplace advantages that might otherwise be taken for granted.

3. Keep it simple. A ten-thousand word dissertation on situational ethics and their application in the workplace is a throwback to someone’s Master’s thesis. If you need a table of contents, glossary, or a dictionary to figure it out, it will never manifest itself into day-to-day operations. The best implementations of culture are simply stated and easily demonstrated. And that means specific and measurable methods of how culture will take practical shape and form.

4. Keep it realistic. If it’s not transferable into recognizable demonstrations of “doing something better,” it’s just theory. Fantasized culture wastes time and creates doubt in the minds of employees. Be able to point to concrete evidence of your “culture” at work. Give it real presence. Maybe it does manifest itself in covered parking and free coffee. If so, make sure employees know about it. A philosophical treatise describing the ideals of “working together to build a better tomorrow” is bullshit, especially if it doesn’t result in something—tangible or intangible—in the everyday work lives of the employees. It may take the form of recognizing workers for their dedication, loyalty, and consistent contribution to meeting team and organizational goals, or it might mean scrubbing the names off the reserved parking places of upper management to remove the perception of narcissistic elitism. To be effective, culture MUST make lives better, easier, or provide something the employee can point to and say, “My company does this, or provides that, or makes this happen, and I think it’s great.” Those are the kind of accolades that give culture presence and value.

5. Keep it transparent. This is hard, especially for upper level management. Their rarefied world has always contained privileged secrets. But keeping the rank and file in the dark can no longer be rationalized with, “It’s for their own good,” or “We know what’s best for them.” If the purpose of the company is to promote the financial well-being of the stock holders, say so. If its objective is to line the pockets of upper management, come clean and say it. Don’t promote the idea of an employee-centered culture if it’s only lip service. If company philosophy doesn’t show itself in credible ways, employees will become suspicious, revert to an “Us vs. Them” mentality, and doubt the intentions of future changes to their work environment.

I’ll leave you with this . . . Employees seldom consider organizational culture in light of economic feasibility. But as our concept of culture continues to evolve from the traditional aspects of improving interpersonal work relationships, enhancing communication, and conflict resolution to a menu of tangible, value-added employee benefits, business owners will have to find a manageable balance between cost, employee satisfaction, and the future financial growth of the company. And just as important, employees must realize that popular cultural imperatives are privileges derived from profit, not the spoils of entitlement.