Organizational culture is one of those things everybody likes to talk about. We all feel it somehow, formed opinions about it and have ideas of what it should be like. The fact that it is ubiquitous in almost everybody’s professional life and that, at the same time, it is so ethereal and idiosyncratic led to a typical oversimplification of the concept. Most people think that this esoteric aspect of work life can be narrowed down to sentences like “Culture is what people do when no one is looking” (it reminds me of a tablecloth my parents had that was filled with quotes all starting with “Love is…”).
Before I go on with my rambling, let me state that in this text I will also oversimplify “culture” as I’ll use it as an overarching term for values, principles, mission, vision, culture itself, climate, and other concepts that try to define what guides human interaction in the workplace. For the purpose of this text it shouldn’t really matter because most of these concepts suffer from the same issue.
Most people’s first interactions with culture come from social media posts, Management 101, weird advice like “You should prep for your interview by reading the company’s values” or even TV shows like Suits, Mad Men or Silicon Valley. Yet, you probably have your first direct exposure to culture when you get a new job. One of the first things that you’re told is what the team or company’s culture is and how terribly important it is. Every now and then, this will pop up. Usually, you’ll see it at formal corporate checkpoints (e.g., monthly or quarterly reviews) or whenever there’s a negative event and someone feels the need to say how everyone is deeply committed to that culture. Pretty cynic, I know. But let me drag you down to my gloomy world for a second: When was the last time that someone in your team asked “how does this decision align with our culture?”? Or, “doesn’t this decision contradict our culture?”
My first hypothesis is that culture is in most cases an empty concept. The second one is that teams that are able to truly embody their culture have better chances of achieving their goals, since there’s less energy spent on managing cognitive dissonance. This last hypothesis is a bit radical — a lot of things impact your chances of success — so let me add a backup hypothesis: teams that are able to truly embody their culture are able to direct more resources to chasing their goals.
Where does culture come from?
We usually interact with culture through its most visible representations. A document, a bunch of inspirational slides, slogans on walls. Yet, culture is a social construct, an imaginary entity that two or more people believe to exist. Moreover, it’s a social construct influenced by power dynamics. So, it’s collective or at least relational, but it is shaped by those in leadership positions regardless of whether they were formally appointed or not. If you got a laissez faire boss, a culture will still emerge and it will be defined by those considered to be leaders — if not by hierarchical appointment, then by charisma, technical acumen, coercive leverage or other drivers. Also, this leadership may be represented by one single person or several.
My take is that most teams start thinking about culture for one of two reasons. The first one is ambition. Some people already have in mind what type of team they’d like to have in the future and decide to proactively start stipulating what the team’s culture should be. The second one is conflict resolution. While the team is taking shape, it is normal for people to start disagreeing on how things are being done at a higher-level (e.g., short-term vs long-term priorities, collaboration vs competition) or even to identify some discrepancies between what they were convinced the unspoken team culture was and what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. When these triggers occur, those who are considered to be leaders are expected to lead this conversation and come up with a description of (or prescription for) culture. This is then absorbed or rejected by the followers.
It’s really important to note that a team or a company (I’ll call them units moving forward) is a really important part of people’s identities. People have several identities (e.g., accountant, father, soccer coach, manager, son, quiet guy at parties) and these become salient according to the context. If you spend half of your time awake playing with a professional identity, it has a tendency to become one of your core identities. Now, imagine how that must be for people that are seen as representatives of the unit, the leaders. Not only are they spending most of their time on this unit, they are also expected to be standard-bearers. A unit is a reflection of who they are and they are a reflection of what the unit is. Even if this doesn’t work at a conscious level, I can guarantee you that this influences people’s behaviors. In short, culture is a subjective concept that sets how people should interact with each other, its existence relies on people agreeing that it exists, and it’s set by people who will represent and feel represented by it at a personal level. Simple, right?
When you’re thinking about how to represent yourself — let’s say, when you’re updating your CV — you think about your best self or even your ideal self. You know there are parts of you that don’t seem to fit the purpose of that representation and you hide them. You might feel guilty or awkward about it but you end up reasoning yourself into it and doing it to some degree. You want people to like you or to at least see you as someone valuable for that context. I don’t know if you’re already seeing where I want to get here but I’m basically trying to tell you that those slides, docs, slogans and whatnots are a representation of what leaders would like to be (or how they want to be perceived) and not necessarily an accurate representation of how they treat people. Basically, leaders end up demanding from their units, behaviors that they themselves might not be able to replicate.
Turning the cynicism down for a moment, culture will not be solely shaped by these ideal representations alone. You really like parts of yourself. Parts that seem productive or even good (to whatever standard you use to guide your life). Parts of the prescribed culture will actually be in line with what people are or are actively trying to be. You as a leader will incorporate those into your culture. Yet, like in most situations, the issue is with the bad apples. Not because they have a floury texture and taste like bitter paper but because they can spoil the barrel as they’re not aligned with reality. I’ll get into that later in this text.
This leads us to a new definition. Culture is a subjective concept that sets how people should interact with each other, its existence relies on people agreeing that it exists, it’s set by people who will represent and feel represented by it at a personal level — and people want to look good. Looking good in a professional environment has become its own phenomenon. Not only do you have a matrioshka of units (e.g., departments within companies, companies within clusters), you also have a worldwide emerging melting pot of non-professional cultures which raise the bar of what we expect from each other. I’m not just talking about basic levels of decency. Today you are expected to navigate a series of dialogues of what are the new requirements of a good citizen and a good leader. While some (or even most) of us can allow themselves to say things like “All this social justice talk is just not for me” or “I don’t care what’s going on in your life, as long as you get the job done”, those in representative positions do not feel like they can afford it. Leaders will often feel the need to highlight how much they’re in line with these requirements.
Having evolving standards for our cultures is a good thing. It’s a driver for change. It leads us to make an effort to be better. Yet, being better, wanting to be better, and feeling that you’re better are completely different phenomena. The pressure to be a good citizen and a good leader often triggers social desirability — providing answers that make us look good. As a representation of what the leader is and considering that the leader wants to be seen as a “good leader” according to several standards, culture will be highly influenced by the leader’s social desirability. Maybe we got to a new definition. Culture is a subjective concept that sets how people should interact with each other, its existence relies on people agreeing that it exists, it’s set by people who will represent and feel represented by it at a personal level — and people want to look good not only according to their own standards but according to their society’s standards.
Why are most cultures less effective than bumper stickers?
So far, my ramble has pointed us in the direction of how subjective and fragile the construction of these cultures are. Yet, one could argue that once cultures are created that no one’s keeping them from becoming real. They might have emerged from a completely egotistical, dysfunctional exercise but now here they are, let’s follow them. I’m not saying that can’t happen, I’m just saying I have never heard of such a thing.
Like anything that’s fragile, these ideal cultures need to be tended to frequently. Since they’re not accurate representations of what the team is actively trying to become or even of the leaders’ way of working, the only thing that makes them real is the declaration of their existence. This means that they need to be reaffirmed as often as possible. Fake it til you make it. This requires a high-level investment from leaders who often do not have the time or energy to follow through with it while trying to fulfill the expectations of their job.
Let’s say that leaders truly have the time and will to continuously tell their unit what their culture is all about. They eventually convince everybody. Someone outside the unit asks how it is working there and most people reply with words that came straight out of those slides the leader made about their culture. Success. Repetition can suffice when it comes to convince people that something is real, especially if it’s accompanied by charismatic communication styles. Yet, actions speak louder than words. A culture based on this type of approach will quickly crumble as people start behaving in ways that contradict it without suffering any consequence — or even worse being rewarded for doing so.
A culture that is not based on what the leaders are or actively trying to be is really hard to sustain. Let’s say that you as a leader declared that openness it’s key for your unit’s culture. You’re recurrently telling everyone that they should be open about their agendas and that they should call you out whenever you’re not being open. Let’s say that you added that to your unit’s culture because that’s a key value in the ecosystem you’re in and you as a key element of that ecosystem felt the need to show that you’re in line with it. Yet, in your mind, openness isn’t something that you have ever thought about. To make it even worse, you’re actually a bit paranoid and you try to manage information to keep people with bad intentions from leveraging some of it against you and your unit. You can see where this is going. Your team starts to get caught off guard by decisions that were brewing for months. The team calls you out. You could’ve told them you were working on that decision and they could’ve rebalanced their efforts. You concede but deep down you don’t think you breached the unit’s culture as you ended up sharing the decision with them. You eventually do it again.
Even if part of your culture is actually coherent, there’s the bad apples situation. You can have a culture where most pillars are sincere and reinforced frequently, but if you have a pillar based on social desirability and it’s contradictory to your way of working, it will endanger the whole thing. Cognitive dissonance kicks in. The unit starts to question which parts of the culture are worth following or if it’s worth considering the prescribed culture at all. This is the main reason why cultures are empty: they’re not based on what leaders are or actively trying to be and they quickly crumble when the unit perceives that. Once a culture loses its credibility it’s almost impossible to bring it back up.
Dialing down on the cynicism again, there are leaders who try to be as sincere as possible when coming up with their cultures. One recent case of a leader trying to maintain that sincerity was Brian Armstrong with his “Coinbase is a mission focused company” blog post. Cognitive dissonance will still occur but since there’s an effort to be sincere about the culture, I’d say that leads to a dialogue about what needs to change: the culture to reflect the leader or the leader to reflect the culture. The biggest threat for a culture in this scenario is communication. You might be sincere about what you want the culture to be, yet it is still a subjective concept that comes from one or a small group of brains and needs to land in a larger bunch of brains without losing its meaning. For me this is the second reason cultures become void of meaning.
You probably heard a bunch of times that there is no such thing as “red”. There’s a range of wavelengths that I perceive as red, there’s a range of wavelengths that you perceive as a “red”, and both ranges overlap in such a way that in most cases we agree what “red” is. This gives us the illusion of the existence of red. Yet, it’s an abstraction with ill-defined boundaries that allows us to communicate about color without having to use the RGB color model or something like that. Now, if this is true for something as simple as “red” imagine how it’s like for “openness”. Lisa Feldman Barrett on How Emotions Are Made talks about this very old obsession with trying to determine which pieces of the brain produce which emotion and how it’s all a crass oversimplification of what actually happens in our brains. You do have reactions that make you feel good or bad (affect) about things but there’s no such thing as an universal “joy”. You have some reactions, you catalog them as good or bad and your surroundings (including other humans) help you determine how to map those feelings to a concept like “joy”. Psychology applied to work environments (or organizational behavior) is on a similar trend to come up with these concepts that characterize organizational cultures. You can find 4,937 articles in Harvard Business Review about “transparency”. Do they all have the same definition of “transparency”? Unlikely.
Even when you’re sincere about how you want your unit to behave, people might have different definitions of what those behaviors are. This means that there needs to be a recurring dialogue about these behaviors. The best timing to have these conversations is whenever it seems like someone is behaving differently from what was expected. Some might have the tendency to scold people for not following their own interpretation of the behavior, yet that’s not really productive. Usually a conversation of what “openness” means to you versus what means to the other person solves a lot of problems. You’re giving the other person an opportunity to present you a new version of “openness” and it might even enrich your version. If it doesn’t, it gives you a chance to see where your two versions were misaligned and work on that. Maybe the person isn’t being “open” because for them “openness” only applies to those who work directly with them, while you perceive “openness” to be extended to the whole unit. The advantage of having a culture rooted in the leader’s way of working rather than on an ideal culture is that leaders will more likely be proactive about having these conversations. Culture maintenance comes more naturally to the leader and the unit.
Why would teams with a coherent culture be more productive?
Culture is a subjective concept that sets how people should interact with each other, its existence relies on people agreeing that it exists, it’s set by people who will represent and feel represented by it at a personal level. People want to look good not only according to their own standards but according to their society’s standards and that might lead them to come up with cultures that are rooted in social desirability instead of coming from who they are and who they are trying to be. That would fit perfectly in my parents tablecloth.
Have you ever been in a situation where you somehow convinced yourself that you shouldn’t be yourself but rather adopt some alternative attitude and/or behavior? I’m not talking about “I am spending less time on the couch and exercising more.” I’m referring to “I shouldn’t be as vulnerable as I’d like in front of this group because I think they’ll appreciate me more if I’m stoic and tough.” Not deciding to change something for yourself, but adapting your behavior because you think others will appreciate it. Isn’t it exhausting? Now imagine trying to convince a group of people to follow you in that artificial behavior. How much more demanding will that be?
Firstly, finding a culture that is rooted in your personality and path as a leader will unblock your own productivity. You’ll have to spend less time trying to find ways to manage all these different personas that you have to create in order for you to look desirable in everybody’s eyes. My point of view is that as long as you’re not hurting anyone, there isn’t a right culture. Trying to force yourself to be the standard-bearer of a culture that is not aligned with who you are and that is not necessarily better than one rooted in your identity as a leader will drain you. Free that part of your brain so you can use it for problem solving and creative purposes.
On top of that, you’re doing your unit a favor. Just like it’s hard for you to have a thousand faces, it’s hard for them to try to understand which one of your faces they have to take seriously. Should they emulate your behavior or follow your speeches? Can they trust you? What can they trust you with? Setting clear expectations about how you want people to interact, reinforcing those expectations frequently, and embodying those expectations will make it more obvious how people need to navigate the unit. This frees up all that memory and processing power that they were using to think about how to avoid being caught between the prescribed culture (i.e., those beautiful, inspirational slides) and the de facto culture (i.e., how you treat people). Basically, the less you invest in artificial identities, the more you can invest in the actual work. It sounds simple and it is. At least, on paper. Turning this into a reality requires a fair amount of discipline to keep you from falling into the social desirability traps.
Notes about my texts:
- Goal #1: Keep track of my thought processes so I can make fun of myself some years from now
- Goal #2: Increasing the chances of finding people who are interested in discussing these topics and making new connections
- Texts are based on a combination of personal and professional experiences, both my own and of those around me — they do not reflect my current role or team
- I do not speak on behalf of any of my current or previous employers, views are my own
- [NEW] It has come to my attention that Scott Adams has gone completely off the rails. It’s a shame. Yet, I still feel like he has some really good comic strips about work.