Bad Culture

Do you like your job? Do you look forward to work in the morning? Are you eager to see what new problems present themselves to you each day? Think of a time you were not happy. Unhappy people’s reasons are varied and unique. But today think of what may invisibly bind them together: bad culture.

It is said that people leave managers, not companies. Perhaps obvious when corporations are viewed as the abstract entities they are. They share lofty values agreeable to most. Managers, on the other hand, are the living, breathing, acting face of the company. They represent and greatly influence their organization’s culture. And is culture, values manifested in action, that attracts and drives talent away.

The difference between belief (values) and action can be substantial. All companies want culture to reflect values. But we’ve all seen environments where that is not the case.

Ben Horowitz released last year a presentation on culture where he said culture as what people do when no one is looking. Implicit here is that (1) culture describes actions born from values, not rules and (2) culture includes those actions and values common to a group. He poses thought-provoking questions to help the identify an organization’s culture:

  • Does job title impact who is right and who is wrong?
  • Do you show up on time?
  • Do you use your own products?
  • Is watching what you spend important?
  • Do you tell the truth?

No set of questions can clearly or completely identify organizational culture. But good questions shed light on the culture’s shape. Like viewing an object’s shadow instead of the thing itself. I’ll add to Horowitz’s list a few questions from my experience:

  • Do your actions match your words?
  • Do you pay and promote based on merit versus experience?
  • How do you treat employees that are failing in their job?
  • Do you share information freely?

But culture isn’t just corporate. National cultures infuse regional organizations to produce a strange, wonderful, or unpredictable melange. The great variety of the world’s natural cultures was investigated in a series by Geert Hofstede. He identified six dimensions of national culture that could support or conflict with corporate values and culture. For instance, what role does tradition play in decision making? How is institutional inequality tolerated? And what is the role of gender in work?

You can consider the surprising effects of culture on your own happiness with a thought experiment. Ask yourself your own commitment to honesty, punctuality, and transparency. Layer on your beliefs about tradition, authority, and individuality. Now imagine yourself in an organization where everyone’s answers were polar opposites. How could you not be miserable in that job?

A few years ago I was discussing with a young professional the rejection he had received for employment. The employer told him he wasn’t a cultural fit. He struggled to understand what that meant. And he didn’t understand exactly why culture mattered if he was capable of performing the job.

I think his rejection was a blessing in disguise. When I review my least favorite employers, I today know my unhappiness was a product of cultural mismatch. I was quick to label this bad culture. But let’s be honest: “bad” is subjective a pejorative. A better word would be different. Bad may exist but different needs to be respected.

Culture is a dynamic thing born of the actions of a collection of individuals. And while it behooves each of us to prefer organizations that match our own culture, there are great benefits for organizations to strive to stretch and shift their own culture.

More on this another day.



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