The other day, a well-meaning colleague suggested to me that our culture is so damn good we need to tell people about it — write our values down or something. It’s not the first time I have this conversation. Apparently, it’s somehow expected of me. Well if the culture is so damn good, people might take notice without us writing it down for them, no?
Corporate dogma gives me the creeps. At best it’s disingenuous snake-oil. Seemingly harmless, but full of vomit-inducing, self-congratulatory bullshit intended to apply a thin veneer of virtue on what should be ordinary and morally unremarkable. At worst it’s the real work of evil; a nefarious reproduction of Soviet-style agitprop, this time with grandstanding stock photography and finger-wagging cliches proclaimed by inane losers who never had a genuine thought of their own.
There’s something deeply illiberal about telling people what “our” values are. Who the hell is “us”? And who are you telling me what I should be? Oh dear, you also have a little book of some sort, do you? Yes, of course you would. Nothing says “culture” quite like an in-group indoctrination manual.
Culture is an emergent property, not the materialization of a manifesto. It’s what happens when you put people together in a context where they have to interact meaningfully in order to achieve their goals. Sure, you get somewhat of a choice in personalities — at least at first. Then they attract the people that those personalities would attract, influence them in their own idiosyncratic ways, and the whole thing takes a life of its own. Maybe you can nudge things here and there by condoning or disagreeing with certain behaviors. But really, you don’t know what you’re getting until you get it. Culture defies ownership. It’s antithetical to dogma.
To survive and thrive, a culture must be capable to disrupt and re-invent itself. Genuine culture is rarely prescriptive; it requires that rules and norms may be broken or changed by its subcultures and its dissenters. Creativity isn’t pretty, it’s heretic. A viable culture must occasionally change its mind, so the freedom to dissent, to digress, to be different, is of existential importance. Change is not fun — it is positively scary.
Heretics are not a “culture fit” and are almost always indistinguishable from regular uninspired assholes. The moment you typecast normative behaviors, you discourage the very thing that generates culture: individual agency.
A company is not a state. States have to create a cultural narrative to justify an otherwise arbitrary group identity. Companies are not an arbitrary association of people and membership is not mandatory. Their desire to build a narrative of group identity is not one of necessity, but a deceitful attempt to substitute ideology for genuine cooperation in the interest of the individual members.
History is littered with tyrants oppressing and regressing, all in the name of protecting an idealized culture and its sacred principles. Now you can be a petty tyrant, too. All you need is powerpoint and a generation of young professionals desperately craving for “culture” that affirms their aspiration to be part of something really meaningful even though it’s just an ordinary, safe, middle-class job with a reasonable commute in a neighborhood featuring at least one mediocre brewery.
No thanks, I’ll sit this one out.
So, am I advocating for a free-wheeling, anything-goes, hedonistic dystopia? Are we indifferent, lacking all moral compass or aesthetic preference? Of course not. We do have agency, and individual principles and we will live by them. But we recognize that culture is the reflection of everyone’s actions today, not the story someone wrote in a book a long time ago.
We’ll keep doing things that make sense until it looks sensible to everyone that cares to look. Hiring people who seem competent and nice. Making honest decisions with integrity in our motives. Not taking ourselves too seriously. Not assuming too much. Having opinions and the courage to let go of them when the evidence suggests you should. Being decent people and helpful where we can. And we’ll sometimes change our mind about what makes sense, and then do that. And make some mistakes. Individually or collectively. And hope the group rejects the mistakes and keeps the sensible stuff. Not everyone’s going to like our stuff, but some people will and they will know why, and they will be happy they’re part of the group. We expect disagreement and conflict. We think that the ability to deal with conflict and engineer its resolution is the mark of intelligent, socially functioning adults.
And it will feel a bit real, and really our own, authentic in its imperfection, visceral in its unpredictability, even slightly rebellious in its lack of doctrine. Writing down the future doesn’t make it true. Authenticity doesn’t need captioning.
If you think this raving loon is onto something and you’d like to work in a company that won’t impose a soul-crushingly banal values statement on you, come as you are.