My first (and only) axiom of culture

Like all my other posts, this post is entirely my own opinion and not may not reflect the opinions of my employers, past and present.

A week ago, I finished reading Dan Lyons’ real-life tragic comedy “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble“. It has left me uneasy. Among other tech startup evils, Lyons turns the spotlight on HubSpot’s culture – with its own cult-like lingo, ridiculous rituals, and messianic rhetoric that turns HubSpot’s commodity products into the salvation of mankind.

Under the lashes of Lyons’ trademark wit, it is uneasy to be sympathetic to the torrent of B.S. in which HubSpot seems to drench its hapless employees. But I have seen many of the phenomena Lyons describes at other organizations: good companies run by decent, well-meaning people. On the other hand, I have seen leaders, even those without any formal managerial training create cultures that everyone was happy to be a part of without resorting to gimmicks, rhetoric, or any other device that Lyons skewers in his tome.

I have concluded that those who “win at culture” do so because they understand, perhaps at an intuitive level, this one core principle:

Culture cannot be “created”, “established”, or “designed”. It can, however, be seeded and allowed to grow.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at how companies typically try to “establish” culture.

Wisdom + Plaques = Bullshit

When I worked in what became a subsidiary of a subsidiary of eBay, we had plaques with the eBay’s “shared commitments” and “shared behaviors” on the wall of every conference room. These included great nuggets of wisdom, such as “Be the customer”, “Debate, decide, and deliver”, “Enable talented people to thrive”, etc. As far as I could tell, once introduced, these had absolutely no impact on how we approached products, people, or processes. In fact, after a few days – we stopped noticing the messages entirely, only pointing them out in new employee orientations or when they served as convenient punchlines (I, for one, can’t resist a convenient punchline).

But the plaques had another unwritten message: “we are your corporate overlords. We tell you what to think.” A shared commitment, behavior, or value does not need to be hung in on every wall. The fact that something is hung on a wall, phrased as a slogan or a snappy acronym, or written in a slide deck means that it is not shared. Rather, it is something that the leadership wants to impose and and beat into employees with repetition. And the only cultural values such misguided efforts can instill are distrust and cynicism.


Seeding Culture

Truly shared values, beliefs, and behaviors occur without being preached, promoted, or mandated. Leaders of an organization can, however, “seed” beliefs and behaviors by creating an environment where such beliefs and behaviors can thrive and grow organically. Some ideas that, in my experience, work:

  • Lead by example. If one of the values you want to seed in your organization is directness/honesty/transparency, then you need to demonstrate these values in practice. That means staying away from slogans, euphemisms, and white-washing. If faced with uncertainty, communicate the uncertainty.
  • Provide the tools. It’s easy to pay lip service to any value or goal, but if you actually want your organization to believe it and adopt it, you have to enable it to do so. For instance, with the directness/honesty/transparency goal above, you might provide an anonymous feedback mechanism for any employee to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.
  • Ask. Yep. Instead of making slogans, gimmicks, instructional activities, and other forms of bullshit, just ask your people for what you want. Do you want them to be honest and direct with you? Say, “please, tell us honestly if something concerns you. Here’s that anonymous suggestion box.” Another common startup example: Let’s say you want your organization to exude an aura of fun, a kind of casual friendliness and low-key atmosphere that a job candidate on a tour couldn’t resist. Why not just ask your employees? “Hey, guys, so what can we do to project that this is a fun place to work?” Note: this is decidedly not the same thing as taking unilateral steps from a leader’s perch to “make the place seem fun”. You’re not deceiving your employees with a facade, you’re asking them to help create the facade. They’re in on the scheme, and since they likely share your goal of wanting to attract the best candidates – and to create a fun environment – they’ll be only too happy to help.


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