Is “Company Culture” Overhyped?

In 1951, Elliot Jacques authored ‘The Changing Culture of a Factory’ where he studied the social developments of a British metal bearings company. In his book, Jacques introduced what we now know as the modern-day company culture. 

He studied human behavior and how it is impacted in organizational settings; a concept that many management consultants have relentlessly tried to optimize since. 

But, what if company culture isn’t actually the ticket to employee optimization we believe it to be?

Let’s look at how we may need to reorder how we support our employees with the possibility that wielding a company culture around for brand purposes can be futile from the internal perspective. 

Defining Company Culture

For us to truly investigate what makes the most business sense, we should have a consensus definition for company culture. Company culture is the defined set of values, mutual assumptions and beliefs that all members of a company subscribe to. The culture underpins decision making, leadership styles and ethical considerations. 

Company culture is articulated through value sets, missions and visions to impress upon new hires and prospective clients how they can expect to be treated. Most often there is one culture prescribed to all employees in all branches for uniformity of standards.

But does this work from top to bottom of your org? 

Drawbacks of Investing in Company Culture

Let’s be clear about one thing, creating a positive company culture is not a bad thing. It just might not always be as effective as we are led to believe. Most well-meaning intentions will benefit most employees but that does not mean they are without flaws.

Company Culture Assumes Homogeneity of Employee Experiences

Company culture sits upon a fractured premise – that employees experience everything in the same way from the top of the org down to the bottom. It suggests that the values, perks and vision of a company are equally appreciated by all members of staff which fundamentally is not the case as found by ADP survey. Corporate values actually have a very limited role in the day to day experience of employees. 

First and foremost, employees are human and, with that, have a range of emotions, living situations, aspirations and personal values. Each of these will be different based on factors including where in the hierarchy and what teams each employee is on. The larger the company, the harder it is to have perfect alignment across the board. 

For example, results-oriented value sets will undoubtedly be experienced differently. Sales teams will be under target driven pressure to attain metrics on an upwardly sliding scale whereas this target-driven culture may not impact IT, accountancy or HR teams in the same way. Innovation may be ideal of your company but are the voices of the employees on the bottom rung heard equally to those at the top?

Each value means different things to different stakeholders and doesn’t always make contact with the individuality of the employee experience. Lower-level employees might hold two jobs while trying to provide for their families and, therefore, aren’t inspired by the prospects of going above and beyond for every customer if it means they have to work late. The introverted employee happy in their role may be deterred by personal development or leadership positions pushed upon them despite others reveling in these opportunities. 

The employee as an individual looks through a unique lens and deciding one value set is suitable for all colleagues is often an overreach.

Culture Often Feels Staged

If you’ve been on a team where the custom was to put hands into the middle for a chant before a game, you understand the visceral feeling of togetherness and motivation. But, this can’t always be recreated around workplace slogans. 

For most established companies, they’ve decided their values long ago and haven’t changed them in years. So there is little to no relatability felt by employees. New team members might take note of the slogans without feeling particularly inspired. 

Where employees feel slogans or values are just vacuous empty rhetoric they can backfire and make someone feel like they are being spoken down to. Slogans and greater cultural initiatives can feel like they are used as tools to create an impression of engagement rather than actively hit the mark. When the values, slogans and beliefs are not reflective of team members beliefs, they feel unheard or dissonant. 

Singular Cultures Rarely Transcend Merger & International Boundaries

Daimler and Chrysler, HP and Compaq, AOL and Time Warner. What do these three colossal mergers have in common? Their mergers failed, in part, due to company culture incompatibility.

They tried to pair two major companies who could mutually benefit but ran aground thanks to fundamental cultural differences that could not be fixed. 

Mergers and acquisitions are not the only areas where culture struggles. Company culture is most often reflective of local customs to start out and doesn’t automatically fit elsewhere. Spain, Greece, Italy, and the Philippines, for example, often have mid-afternoon siestas where employees take naps during the workday. Now just imagine a company setting up in one of those countries and not changing to suit the local workforce?

Similarly, the expansion of L’Oreal was damaged due to an inflexible singular workplace culture. Communication had always been open, full-throated, and honest discourse when it came to disagreement or confrontation. However, when they opened up in Mexico, huge issues emerged as this honest conflict style was viewed as rude and disrespectful. 

If not company culture, then what?

Allow us to revisit a salient point that culture is still an essential part of the business. It is the personality of an enterprise commanding an important role internally and externally. Would Starbucks procure the talent they do if they didn’t provide a caring culture of benefits and personality? Of course not. Would people work for or shop at Patagonia in droves if they didn’t have such high eco-friendly values? Probably not. The value of company culture is still enormous.

The insight to take away is that while company culture is an exceptionally strong starting point; it meets a ceiling in expansion. There comes a point when values and norms no longer permeate and resonate with the workforce in a personalized manner. 

When culture is eventually saturated with a diminishing margin of engagement return, what direction do you take? Now it is time to focus on teams!

Photo by Dylan Gillis