You Can’t Judge Culture When Things Are Going Well

Cody Royle
Dec 5, 2018 · 3 min read

The headline says it all.

Gone unchecked, we’ve allowed the current titans of industry — Amazon, Google, Apple — to dominate the discussion on culture, just like they’ve dominated our purchasing habits over the last decade.

But I’m calling bullshit. We need to be honest about the current level of fandom that is warping the narrative around how to build a culture of sustained success.

The issue is this: just like it’s not best to judge a business during boom time, it’s not best to judge a culture during boom time.

When the money, the awards, and the public adoration all go away, that’s when you’re left with a more realistic portrayal of the culture you’ve actually created.

The questions we need to be asking are whether our teams still exhibit the best behaviours during periods of sustained duress? To anyone that studies cultures closely, it is this simple idea that makes Simon Sinek’s tale of BarryWehmiller so alluring.

The Steelers Way

This year, Pittsburgh Steelers star Le’Veon Bell decided to sit out the entire year rather than sign a $14.5 million, one year contract. In a move you rarely see in the heavily-unionized NFL, Bell’s teammates were lashing.

“He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as Alessandro Villanueva is making, and we’re the guys who do [the work] for him” said Ramon Foster, one of the linemen who blocks opponents for Bell. Maurice Pouncey, another lineman, added: “Honestly, it’s a little selfish. I’m kinda pissed right now. It sucks that he’s not here but we’ll move on as a team.”

Obviously, the media loved the headlines, but to me this is indicative of a culture that really does value the ‘we’ over the ‘me’. Pittsburgh’s culture has become iconic for its stability and loyalty— they’ve had three head coaches since 1969, and players often play their entire careers with the team.

The team would rather deal with the threat of losing games than be held ransom by a highly-talented team member. Under duress, their behaviours matched their words. For me, that’s a strong culture.

The Google Way

Just a few short months after being named ‘Best Company Culture’ by Comparably, tens of thousands of Google employees walked out of work to demand “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.”

It is said that the company shielded and even promoted men who were accused of sexual harassment, and that women and minorities were underpaid and underpromoted.

While I don’t seek to add to the broader commentary on this issue, or offer up a solution, it still needs to be said — Yikes!

For a company that has been universally lauded for building the most open, trusting, empowering and vivacious culture, these are particularly damning events. It’s clear that the behaviours did not match the words.

To my original point: NOW is the time to judge the Google culture, not when they’re hosting a massive backslapping event to show you that their AI can book an appointment with a hairdresser.

Let’s Be Honest About Culture

In the coming years, the Millennial generation will become the largest percentage of the workforce. Already, this generation has shown an exceeding expectation for honesty and transparency in the companies they work for.

We can’t forget that Gen Yers grew up watching their parents fall victim to dishonest companies who promised safety, but at the first sign of a setback they only delivered job cuts. There is an inherent distrust in any organization whose behaviours don’t match their words, and that’s not something that is going away anytime soon.

The good news is there’s is an easy way to think about whether your culture can sustain during a downtown, ask yourself: if half of our clients vanished overnight, what behaviours would my team exhibit during the downturn?

We see people in the rawest form during periods of adversity, so the best time to judge a culture is not when you’re flying high.

Let’s agree to have a more honest, realistic conversation about organizational cultures, and not let our judgment be clouded by a new iPhone release.

Where Others Won’t

Author and podcaster Cody Royle explores the crossover of leadership between sports and business.

Cody Royle

Written by

I study how teams create sustained success | Where Others Won’t | Head Coach of AFL Team Canada | Avocado Toast Aficionado | #altMBA

Where Others Won’t

Author and podcaster Cody Royle explores the crossover of leadership between sports and business.

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