Your Company Culture Is a Meaningless Platitude

6/10/10Follow @danshapiro

In this envelope, I have your Company Culture.

“We work hard, but value work/life balance.

We’re a team culture and we believe in individual empowerment.

We give back to the community, and have strong ethics.

We hire only the best people, support diversity, and promote growth and leadership in our employee ranks.

And more than anything we value our customers, our stockholders, and our employees.”

That’s right—you’re GE! Or Wells Fargo. Or Zillow

Company Culture is a very serious matter, put together after much employee feedback and deliberation, and carefully designed to capture the key things that make your company great. It’s also a load of well-mixed fertilizer.

The Rule of Company Culture: It’s what makes your company different, not what makes it great.

Hire the best, teamwork, ethics… all meaningless platitudes. Real company cultures are made of four things:

1. Polarizing decisions
2. Excesses
3. Quirks
4. Dysfunctions

Polarizing decisions are what happens when a company decides not to compromise between two equally compelling but opposing imperatives. Every company strikes a balance between work and play; that’s not company culture. Company culture is investment banking’s mandatory 95 hour work weeks or Jackson Fish Market’s 12 weeks of vacation. Every company has a balance of teamwork and individual contributorship—culture is ruthlessly pitting your people and teams against each other, or firing your best people because they’re not effective team members. Other balances include great benefits versus lean operations, customers versus stockholders versus employees, and cheap products versus innovative quality products. If you find yourself saying “we can do it all,” that’s great! And you’re right, sort of. Your attempts at balance are admirable and may be successful, but do not constitute a corporate culture. That only comes from taking a stand on one end of the see-saw.

Excesses are aspects of culture that happen when companies take an indubitably good thing to its extreme. For example, every company tries to hire great people. But some will leave a position open for nine months, miss deadlines, and work its existing employees in to borderline revolt before hiring someone who’s even the tiniest compromise. Every company should give back to the community, but there’s a line between a matching gifts program and Ben & Jerry’s that’s not easy to miss. “Openness” is great—do the employees see the detailed company financials, and get notified when cash reserves are running low? Corporate culture is what occurs in the margins when someone asks, “Well, I know that’s good, but isn’t it a bit much?”

Quirks are the safe, friendly, harmless, and most companies screw them up too. A quirk is some point of weird distinction, neither wonderful nor terrible, that is distinct to the company and integral to the employee experience. Casual Fridays are policy; Dress Like Raymond Day is a quirk. When the company picks up your nighttime MBA, that’s a great benefit—but when TeachStreet (a company that helps people find local and online classes) gets its employees together to learn how to build kites, now that’s a quirk. It’s not to say that corporate mandates can’t make great quirks, although the best ones often arise spontaneously from the teams themselves. But great quirks take their power from the team, their distinctiveness, and the culture itself.

There’s one more aspect of corporate culture that’s important if you’re measuring rather than designing: the Dysfunction. A dysfunction is the mirror image of an excess—not enough of something that’s important. Every company has problems, and most of the problems are present to some degree everywhere. Those aren’t dysfunctions. A dysfunction creeps in to the corporate culture when it’s distinctive and impactful—much like a positive culture trait. Typical dysfunctions include management and employee antipathy, severe lack of ethics, and disregard for customers. You know them when you see them. One thing that may not be obvious—sometimes a dysfunction is a direct causal result of the company culture. Backstabbing and rumor-mongering may be the price you pay for rewarding individual initiative and achievement. A general lack of spending discipline may be the unwanted side effect of generous benefits and an employee-first culture.

The great corporate cultures are a simple mix: a few polarizing decisions or excesses, with a handful of quirks mixed in. Preferably quirks that reinforce the rest of the culture.

Later, I’ll post a bit about some examples of company cultures and guidelines on how to be deliberate in creating one.

Dan Shapiro is the CEO of Robot Turtles, a crowdfunded boardgame that teaches children programming. He previously worked at Google after it acquired his company, Sparkbuy. Follow @danshapiro

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