It makes me also think about how uncomfortable I felt during high school rallies. I mean, I didn't even particularly choose to be in that place, why should I have "pride" to be part of that institution? And why do I need to express that "pride" by yelling in a mob? I always found it somewhat creepy how easily people went along with all of that. I guess it's better than being lonely.
I've heard a number of horror stories: one from a private dental practice and several from a chain restaurant. Both stories come from individuals I trust when they say the problem employees needed to be fired... but they sue anyway.
In the case of the medical practice, the settlement could have been avoided by a 4 page "employee handbook" plus a few written notes about handbook violations. In the chain restaurant stories, some notes citing which "values" the employee failed to personify made for easy dismissals of cases about race or age discrimination.
As I see it, it's like writing down your goals. Having them written down isn't the end-all of the matter. But if you write them down, it makes them much more tangible and achievable.
Looked at that way, having aspects of "company culture" doesn't mean much on its own. The test is whether the influential people (CEO, vets, etc...) embodying and practicing those points on a daily basis.
e.g. If you value "trust", mention that an employee can leave work anytime to attend to their personal matters without showing any proof. The company trusts employees not to abuse this.
Write as many examples as possible. I can visualize examples. I can't visualize "trust" or "integrity" or "innovation".
Examples help everyone make decisions. Platitudes cannot.
This is the crux of the problem and the reason it's difficult to talk about organisational culture (and how to foster a healthy one). I suspect many people's first experience of it is the jarring disconnect between purported company 'values' and the actual behaviour that gets rewarded within an organisation (whether that be high-school or the workplace).
A 'culture' you can be fired from is not a culture in any real sense.
Maybe you are a great person and don't need any culture but does that mean that doing nothing is enough?
You can also shape culture using rules. For example, at Google SRE, there was a rule that after any outage a post-mortem was to be written. It described why the problem happened, why that happened, etc. and how to prevent each level from re-occurring. Things like "it was person X's fault" or "we will be more careful" were forbidden. Fault and fixes had to be in technology or procedure, not people. It helped shape a culture of coming forward with problems and of looking for solutions. It didn't work perfectly, but it helped.
I always found them rather unnerving as well.
It was like school administration was explicitly calling out the students that they decided should be popular. Very strange; made even stranger by football not actually being particularly popular in my school (the games always struggled with attendance, the basketball team was far more popular).
In California tech, something like half of the employees will not even have much stateside family, being immigrants, while another large portion come from broken families, are un-churched (but perhaps yoga-classed), and are often unmarried also. There is no 'society' there for such employees beyond the company, no rival sources of meaning. Perhaps after 'success' there is room for 'philanthropy.'
It is actually the whole culture because the alternate cultural institutions have become so weak that the corporation just fills the gaps, as the only remaining institution in the life of the individual with any confidence or capacity for initiative. Otherwise, a good article.
It's funny that a guy who has contributed to HBR, which has done so much to obliterate or subvert all competing institutions to the corporation, seems to have a little trepidation about going all the way.
Though I would take philanthropy out of quotes. And I'd be careful about the concept of unchurched (as someone who is unchurched and has no plans on becoming churched)
I do wonder what people will use as anchor institutions now that church going has declined - not everyone can do the corporate only thing
Entertainment. Religious behavior is so ingrained and universal that, when people lose it, they immediately start organizing around the nearest banner and making mock wars against the unbelievers.
Nintendo believers (with their computerized altars, mythos, and rituals) may not actually kill the bros of the X-box, but they do get worked up about the differences and frequently engage in mock battles with those of other tribes.
It's too reductive to call all of this behavior either religious or spiritual, but if you look at it from the perspective of an anthropologist from the future or another planet, it makes a lot more sense than to say 'the enlightenment happened and each and every person separated the spiritual and the secular in their brains and we all lived rationally ever after.'
So, generally, if you're in the business of making consumer products, you're in the business of running an effective cult, or at least encouraging an existing strong cult to adopt one of your mythic ways into their own, or making use of one of your totems.
Then I commend you for rethinking. By doing so you've demonstrated that 1. The values actually mean something and 2. Even the CEO needs reminding therefore everyone should be able to hold each-other to account.
Depending on how you communicated point 2, you've made it easier for others in the org to be keepers of those values.
I mean, I'm all for that, but let's call things for what they really are.
There can and should be ways to shift cultural control back to employees - but white collar jobs in general are not so prone to unionization (one of the major ways to do so)
That's why these type of "culture statements" are generally only useful in limited contexts and really often just more tools for getting people behind "what the boss wants".
With minor exceptions whenever a company goes on and on about its culture, it is time to leave.
Culture has become a by-word for:
1) Rejecting older applicants while hiring "He is not a Cultural fit"
2) Making females uncomfortable in an all-male Bro-culture by cracking "anatomy" jokes
3) Getting people with families to put in insane hours and justifying it by pointing to the younger crowd and its culture
4) Fig leaf to cover up blatant exploitation
Rarely has company culture ever meant anything positive
Can an employee say NO to a decision from a superior on the grounds it violates a core value?
Try to imagine it. Would a cultural value from your corporate handbook ever be used in making an actual decision about actual work? If the answer is no, then the values are platitudes, or were written so generically that they’re easily overlooked or easily manipulated to justify just about anything (depending on your opinion, Google’s don’t be evil is either a good example or a bad one).
Outstanding insight. That litmus test is usually enough to destroy most the of the paper-thin proclamations of culture trotted out by corporations (especially start-ups).
<swoon> I've been trying to argue this for years. To call a business environment "culture" is to grossly misunderstand the nature and importance of culture and to over-aggrandize the business environment itself.
A minute of of google searches would reveal papers and books about the anthropology of work, including office work and even studies specific to modern tech work. There are even classics in the field, such as The Psychology of Computer Programming, by Weinberg, which despite the title, has many elements of anthropology in it - a book published in 1971.
I asked my boss ('ask' is a euphemism, as I remember it) what was up with this list (given that the statements were almost entirely false in the moment), and he told me that there are two ways to guide people when an organization hits a certain size: with detailed and explicit rules like the military, or with concepts to guide smart people to make decisions roughly in line with the direction chosen by management.
With experience, I have found that there are more than two options (that was my first 'real' job after working at a gas station as a teenager). The "N points" were deprecated after a few years, and amazingly (to me, anyway), the company still exists.
As many people have said, culture usually comes from the leaders' actions, not from their wishes. Or their lists.
Don't let cynicism over the company culture of free t-shirts and late nights cloud out the goal of building a culture that lasts longer than you will. Just like parenting, it's what you do, not what you (or your posters) say that matters.
"You have to do careful study to filter out which cultural values remained immutable over time, if any at all. Ask the first ten employees to leave a successful company why they left, and many will answer “the company changed.”
You have the benefit of retrospection with those companies - In year 1 or year 5 it was (likely) far less clear what the company would look like in 50 or 100 years.
It is also a matter of perspective - as an outsider to any organization the perceptions we have of culture are different than what it's actually like inside. 3M in particular has gone through many cultural changes, including the ones that led to peaks in innovation (see: http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/3M-Company/Infor... on McKnight circa 1950s) and low points (see http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2007-06-10/at-3m-a-strug... McNerney, circa 2000s).
So we're talking about two sides of the same kinds of coins - yes some elements are stable, but it's hard to sort out what they are, and it depends heavily on whether you are an outsider looking for examples, or an insider actually trying to get something interesting done.
This is the single most important statement in the article. Being conscious of the power structures is critical in understanding an organization and how it functions. Most power structures are not legitimate and we unfortunately placate to them as though they are.
Unfortunately most people spend their day in a totalitarian type organizational structure where they have orders barked to them. Even in the tech world. We need to start asking ourselves if we prefer to live most of our lives in totalitarian organizations getting orders barked at us.
For my fellow nerds who have trouble spotting it, de Waal's "Chimpanzee Politics" is a good book showing power in our near relatives. For understanding it in humans, various books on body language were useful to me, as were some theater books, including the status transactions section in Johnstone's "Impro".
More directly related to mempko's point, I'm also really enjoying "Confronting Managerialism", which basically claims that American business culture has relatively little to do with creating effective businesses, and a lot to do with creating a caste system with managers and executives on top.
Now what? Take Berkun's definition of culture, and don't fuck up that. Culture could be the thing that stops future innovation? Make it part of the culture not to try to stop future innovation.
Culture sure is kinda intangible, but it's still good advice to founders to pay close attention to it. Whatever it is.
Berkun's arguments are that there is an established body of knowledge and methods about culture, and people who care about culture in their companies would benefit from learning about those. This notion does conflict with the common, latent self-perception of founders -- that they are starting and inventing everything anew.
When "culture fit" is used to justify not hiring a capable, 43-year-old woman out of the fear that she'll justify the money-making machine that exists when 25-year-old, male, clueless commodity programmers are stapled together into an underpaid, overworked team, the word culture isn't being misused. That's exactly what culture is.
Most companies that have a strong cultural identity have a negative one. It's also not necessary that a company have one. Banks don't trumpet "our culture" but (excluding analyst programs, which are hellish) are decent places to work in spite of the weak cultural identity.
A corporate "culture" eventually realizes that it must defend itself against perceived enemies. And it inevitably ends up being the worst kinds of people-- passive-aggressive, malevolent sorts-- who acquire the position to decide who those enemies are going to be.
Culture also tends toward arrogance, injustice, and hubris as it develops exceptionalism, which is what it will fight hardest to defend. I still have people from Google, three years after I left, going out of their way to fuck up my life because they perceive things I've said as being threats to their culture's exceptionalism. (Never mind that I've been gone for 3 years and have absolutely no power over anything that happens at Google.)
A commercial enterprise like a business will never have a balanced, full-fledged culture. Culture is immersive, not something people participate in for 8 hours per day in order to make money. I would say that, as much as possible, you don't want a strong culture (or, more dangerously, a strong cultural identity) at your place of work. You want people to get in, do good work, be paid well, and be happy. But once you have people start talking about "culture fit" as if it were a real thing, you've hired too many passive-aggressive assholes, and you need to cool it with the "culture" nonsense.
I find this comment very interesting in light of the recent decision by the Chrome team to excise the ability to have the browser check for certificate revocation.
The whole situation left me with the feeling that Google has a really low opinion of anyone that isn't Google. "The certificate revocation process has some deficiencies? We'll roll our own. Oh, people still want to do revocation checks? They're confused, remove the ability to do so."
The key is that culture is every aspect of the human condition. It is the fabric of who we are. You have to take the good with the bad. Hopefully, people aspire to be better.
To extend on what you've said here, I think we can only be a member of one culture at a time. I think we have agency over that membership, but you just can't be in two places at the same time.
So when our employers talk about the company's "culture", what I hear is "make your existence, make the fabric of your being, about work." And that's absolutely no place that I ever want to be, regardless of where I could possibly be working.
Children of immigrants can live within their country's culture while having strong ties to their parents' culture. For example, when they attend public schools, they're immersed in the local culture, but when they go home, they live with the behavioral norms, language, foods, etc. of their parents' home country.
What I mean by "we can only be a member of one culture at a time" is that "it is physically impossible to have an experience other than the one you're having". That at first sounds tautological, but it suggests the fractal nature of culture and subculture.
So when our employers talk about the company's "culture", what I hear is "make your existence, make the fabric of your being, about work."
Both excellent points. You're right that there is good in culture as well.
My objection isn't so much with culture in general as with forced culture. Culture is emergent, except when under totalitarian or clerical control.
If everyone quits because of culture as a company - I wouldn't say a CEO is in control of said culture.
Culture is quite often discriminatory, hostile, and all too often filled with counterproductive sentiment. And, it is fluid.
If we look at the larger world and see how many of the problems are caused by "culture" it's amazing to think we should have adopted this word into our workplaces. Never mind that it doesn't actually fit there.
Most employees embracing principals of hard work, team play and the like isn't really "culture". Maybe "values" or "expectations" or "generally accepted behavior" are better words. Culture is larger than that. Or else something green and slimy growing in a petri dish.
You bash Google at every opportunity, every since you left, AFAIK. You reap what you sow.
The rest of your post was good, but then you had to go off on Google again. Get over it.
I have a problem with individual passive-aggressive assholes-- who have never met me but worked at the same company 3 years ago, and who are taking old mailing list posts way out of context-- trying to fuck up my career long after I worked there. Google is not responsible for the actions of these people; they are adults. Many of them are no longer Googlers. I'm not mad at Google. I'm mad at them. The past is the past; continuing to fuck up the present and threatening the future is unforgivable.
You mentioned that you sued and won some cases for tortious interference (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7645843) - was that against Google employees? Can you share some details?
The reason I bashed Google in the past (I've calmed down a bit) was that their HR refused to investigate, the first time a hit was called. That was wrong on their part. I can see why they didn't do it (I was an ex-employee, and they would have to fire someone who might be a high performer, so it was better not to know) but I'm still pretty disgusted.
Many Googlers I like-- there are a lot of good people at that company-- but there's a certain type of arrogant, entitled, mediocre schmuck that, while they're only 5 to 10 percent of Google, they have a hive-mind dynamic... and those people still really hate me.