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Your Culture is a Joke, and I’m Not Laughing

There’s likely a time in the early stages of a company’s life that the company’s employees will find themselves sitting down, all together as a lovely group of like-minded and excited friends, ambitiously looking each other in the eye and saying, Today we’re going to talk about our culture and what we WANT it to be.”

Pizza may be served. Hours will be spent passionately discussing, but never ever arguing who “We” the company are. What “We” care about. One person cares about diversity. Another advocates transparency. Gender equality, definitely. You may personally suggest that we “cultivate and require of our employees a DIY-attitude.”

The act and intention of this whole meeting is really very noble. You’re trying to do right by your employees and your vision and your company’s future. But… this conversation and it’s output — it’s simply fake. Made-up. Balderdash. Fucking hogwash.

You can’t get to the finish line by saying ‘I have arrived at the finish line.’ You’re not just suddenly there, with the race over. You can’t just say ‘we care about transparency’ and suddenly, you do. You can’t make a cake without the right ingredients in the first damn place.

Promoting a cultural value of transparency might mean we want to have clear performance indicators available for company departments publicly. But, how do you handle the situation when an employee is failing at their role — are you still transparent? Do you have that tough discussion openly with the whole company? Unless you slow down enough to think, “Ah. I have to remember to be transparent about this,” you’re just as likely to forget. Or change your values to fit the situation. Now you’ve entered storybook land.

In the same way that user experience, for example, is a study of how a user may interact with a product, culture is (at least in my opinion) the observed study of how your company and employees operate.

Employee(s) + Actions = Culture

Someone inside your company or the company at large + How they act and operate = Culture

You can’t just separate the future vision and give it a blanket term and call that vision your culture. Just think about how crazy being able to do that sounds. You have to admit that it reads like a ridiculous joke. It’s as if I said I valued nonviolence and I got to the finish line by righteously pummeling you into agreeing with everything I say. Five years from now when you’re all pretty little ducks in a row, we can look back together and see how elegantly we achieved our cultural ideal of nonviolence.

The key component of difference between the truth and the fairy-tale meeting above is that culture isn’t simply “what we say we do.” It is instead, “what we do.” When discussing culture, the simplest element we advocate for early companies isn’t to sit down and decide what you want your culture to be, but it is to engage in actions and observe and measure your culture as-is.

If accountability is a part of your culture, how do you know how well you’re doing in accountability? What mechanisms have you installed to put upon your internal operations the same analysis and scrutiny that you put in place for the analytics of external users?

  • How frequently does your CEO move, miss or force you to reschedule meetings? Doesn’t sound very accountable. Do you even know how often it really happens?
  • How often have you said you were going to get someone something and then you don’t? Do you have a way to keep track of this? Are you afraid to admit it? (I would be!)
  • You value DIY-attitude, but you also don’t allow anyone to run a project because you need to make sure the whole team gives it sign-off. How many policies do you have that are actually directly at odds?

Listen, you’re allowed to want to care about these ideals. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t sit down and talk about them. But… you also can’t divorce them from who you really are. I can’t tell you how many CEOs I’ve seen talk to their teams about the organization’s values and then subsequently be the single greatest failure in adhering to values like accountability and transparency. Way to go leader-man — you’re an ass.

If you care about these things and want them to be important to your company, you need to get the values out of your vision statements and into your actions. You need to track them as best you can and make them less a joke, more an ethos.

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