5 Reasons Why “Company Culture” is Overrated

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

You’ve heard it. Over and over and over again. It was probably the CEO. It is the crutch that startup entrepreneurs stand on when confronted with their organization’s identity.

“We place a ton of importance on company culture at Splorkl.”

“What sets us apart at Splorkl is the culture.”

“Splorkl isn’t your typical Splorkling Agency. Our culture… let’s just say it’s a little different.”

Now, what does this even mean? In a general sense, people take it as an indicator that this is a “cool” company. You know the deal — free food, lax work from home policies, probably an open-office space, maybe a keg in the office, ping pong tables, lounges, etc. But, in reality, “culture” is an amorphous, esoteric, indefinable thing. And there are a multitude of reasons why fixating on creating a great culture is an overrated endeavor…

1) Focusing on Culture Adversely Affects Hiring

When striving for an identity as a company, you face a difficult question: Do you hire for culture, or do you hire for talent? Let’s say you’re down to two possible contenders for a position. Person A is exactly the kind of person who fits in with the vision of your company’s founders. They are competent, brash, outgoing, socially-inclined. They love ping pong, they LOVE free beer, they already have a couple of friends at the company. They fit in. Person B is quiet, keeps to themselves, only drinks the occasional glass of wine (after work hours). They are new to town. They do not fit in.

The problem? Person B is decidedly more competent. They will objectively (as far as anyone can tell) be better at their job than Person A. Not to say Person A won’t be a solid contributor, but the difference in talent is clear. So, what do you do?

From afar, removed from the situation, you absolutely hire Person B. But, I’m here to tell you, friends: Person A is getting that damn job. And that’s why focusing on culture can potentially be destructive.

I’ve been there. Many, many times. The mental gymnastics hiring managers and their team will go through to convince themselves that the “fit” is better with the lesser talent is often breathtaking. The key here is that whoever is hiring literally thinks that they’re making the best decision for the company.

There are various attributes of potential hires that make the company miss the forest for the trees: perceived politics, age, gender, religion, etc. Some of those can be legitimate deal-breakers for teams; if a potential hire clearly won’t be tolerant or supportive of a trans team member, for instance, no amount of talent makes it a good fit. But, that kind of personality clash is the exception, not the rule.

More often than not, any perceived “culture fit” issues won’t manifest themselves in any significant way.

I want to be clear: there is gray area here. There are myriad red flags connected to supremely talented people. Some positions require a certain gregariousness. However, the seed of the issue remains: when “culture” is of paramount importance, “culture fit” takes on an outsized significance that can be detrimental to the productivity and talent acquisition of the company.

2) You Need Differing Personalities on a Functioning Team

If your culture revolves around the acceptance and cultivation of differing personalities to create a well-functioning company melting pot, kudos. This is a rarity when crafting a culture. More typically, a “culture” involves finding like-minded people who get along socially and have similar points of view on what the organization’s goals are and how they will accomplish them. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it depends.

What you risk here is the ability to be productive. Friends typically have a more difficult time holding each other accountable. Friends have an easier time goofing around during office hours. Friends are a deterrent for self-reflection and self-improvement, often allowing each other off the hook for minor transgressions and shoddy work.

Additionally, similar worldviews across an organization can lead to tunnel vision. It behooves any group of people to have differing mindsets on hand to assess the problems that need solving. Hiring for “culture fit” impedes diversity, not just in race and gender and sexuality, but in life experience and background.

3) Pigeonholing Work Styles is a Fool’s Gambit

“The pace of the leader is the pace of the team.” It’s a common refrain. But, what happens when that leader prefers certain work styles to others? One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my time at various agencies is that preferred work environments and personal work rates vary wildly from person to person. Hares love to cannonball through their work day, executing their tasks in short bursts of inspiration, going from 0 to 100 and back to 0 in the blink of an eye. Tortoises work slowly and steadily through their entire day, chipping away at their cinderblock of work.

The problem here is that office cultures can favor one end of the spectrum to the other. This manifests itself in how a company views meeting times, quantity and length of those meetings, the general chaos allowed in the office space, lead time expectations for work, etc. For example, if the CEO prefers receiving tasks and completing them immediately, they’ll almost certainly be okay with their managers giving tasks to their subordinates on short deadlines. That’s a “culture” decision, and it can make a supremely talented employee look like a slacker if they’re a tortoise.

Think about all the places that claim to be a “work hard, play hard” type of office. This usually means that employees are expected to work long hours, toil away, and are then rewarded with a variety of perks. This kind of environment benefits the tortoises. They need that extra time anyway to finish their work. Even if a hare demolishes their tasks by 3pm, they may be expected to stick around and “look busy” until the manager taps the office keg deep in the evening.

4) “Good Culture” Hurts Productivity

This one is simple. “Start-up culture” has become a cliché. Alcohol, in-office games, open office layouts, music blaring, etc. None of these things help productivity. Studies have proven time and time again that open offices are severely detrimental to most people’s ability to get work done. Why is anyone still doing it? Beats me. Sure, some people can and do thrive amidst the chaos inherent in these types of environment. But many, many more people are stifled by it.

Now, it’s important to note that fun can still be had at a productive, healthy company. But, to allow that, you must give employees the options they need to thrive. Open spaces for collaboration, quiet spaces where people can put their heads down and get to work. Areas for employees to be social, but not in spots where it’ll be distracting for anyone working hard. Company outings for those who are seeking a deeper connection with their colleagues, but allowing those who aren’t seeking such connections to opt out without feeling shamed.

Options. That’s the key. Unfortunately, in my experience, “company culture” usually means you’re all-in or you’re out. And that’s never a good way to build a team.

5) People Create the Culture, Not the Company

This is my advice to anyone building a company and wondering what its identity should be: let it happen organically. Hire your all-star squad. Provide them the tools they need to carve out a unique identity. It’s not your place to determine exactly how they will interact and work most productively. You hire great talents and they will tell and show you how they best function within your organization. When that happens, when they mold the clay you’ve presented to them, that’s the only culture that matters.