Why Company Culture Is Overrated

At most organizations, culture is over-hyped, under-managed, and of little tangible value.
Carl RobinsonJuly 3, 2018

Given the time, energy, and money most American businesses spend to define their values and a desired culture, one would assume a big payoff. Yet there’s very little evidence that these investments yield much impact.

Carl Robinson

The organizations that can accurately cite culture as a driver of their business strategy are few and far between — think Apple, Facebok, NASA, and Southwest Airlines — and they work at it relentlessly.

For most, company culture is over-hyped, under-managed, and of little tangible value. The reasons are easy to discern: In most places, culture is like a warm fog. It is generally not clearly articulated or highly relevant, and it’s almost never consistently demonstrated. Indeed, the internal variance can be dramatic.

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This might not matter, except that all employees (top to bottom) love to engage in a game you might call, “Catch the Organization in Contradictions.” Culture is a favorite target.

While words matter, actions matter more. When people see a gap between what is promised and what is delivered, understandably become wary, often defaulting to thinking leadership doesn’t seem to have its act together.

In this way, a deliberate focus on values and desired culture without the managerial will to act inevitably breeds skepticism, distrust, and disengagement.

The Nature of the Beast 

To manage company culture as a true business driver, leaders need to understand the complex space they are playing in. Culture is fragile, contextual, and entirely soft.

At its best, culture is the consistent reflection of closely connected and actionable norms, and well-stated and understood operating principles that tie directly to the company’s mission. Anything less can present a blurry mess that translates as nonsense. With cynicism on the rise anyway, this isn’t a good thing.

Although business conditions can shape and can dilute culture more commonly, unaligned executives have a bigger role. Most organizations have a shadow culture, often a function of politics at the top, favoritism, and history. This shadow side can play out as a force for good, but more commonly it’s a force for evil. How the desired culture filters through senior leaders determines whether it actually influences behavior in the right direction or is compromised.

Most important, company culture is local. The most direct way culture is experienced, understood, and translated is through the individual behavior of one’s boss. He or she captures most of the attention by setting the cultural ground rules, establishing the expectations, and reinforcing what’s right and wrong.

A single bad manager can easily trump a well-crafted values statement.

What To Do

If your intent is indeed to create a durable, impactful company culture — one that aligns and galvanizes efforts toward a common purpose — then serious leadership work is required.  A little sage wisdom can go a long way:

  • Know what you stand for and start there. What’s actually important to you? Where will you take a stand? Your cultural expectations can be aspirational — up to a point.
  • Ensure your desired culture is well-reflected at the top through the behavior of those in charge. This is not conditional; rather, it’s a requirement for every executive.
  • Make fewer promises and make sure you keep them. At the outset, recognize that this is way easier said than done. For instance, creating cultures of respect and helpfulness sounds great, but it requires commitment and dedication.
  • Over time, outlying behavior has to be met with zero tolerance. You either get with the program or you get shipped to your competition. “He may be a jerk, but he’s our star performer” is no longer an excuse for putting up with bad conduct.
  • Understand that culture is reinforced by story, and leaders must be evangelists. Expect nothing less.

Five Questions for Exec Committees

  1. Do we at the top have a well-defined and agreed upon view of our desired culture?
  2. Is this cultural picture a clear, seamless reflection of our corporate vision, mission, and values?
  3. Do we see this work as integral to our business success, or simply a nice thing to have?
  4. How will we mediate inevitable culture clashes?
  5. Most importantly, how will we handle individuals when their behavior compromises or violates our expectations?

In Closing

Establishing a durable, impactful culture that helps attract and retain top-flight employees and actually draws customers to your door is not for the faint of heart. Anything less than a full commitment is destined to create more problems than value.

If leadership isn’t fully prepared to live up to the implications of their compact, no one should expect employees to follow.

Carl Robinson is founding partner of Vantage Leadership Consulting.