Friday, August 14, 2009

The culture thing

Its really tough to figure out what “culture” is. In a company. Just like any group of people - a community, a village, a country, or a race, - has a “culture”, so does a company. But its often very different from what the leaders of a company want us to believe.

Culture is a way of behaviour that characterises many of the people in a company. It develops as a consequence of a series of events in the company’s history, from the behaviour of its leaders, from the nature of people it recruits, and from what sorts of behaviours are actually rewarded and encouraged.

Companies tend to list a series of “values” that define their "culture". These are often motherhoods – mom and apple pie that that are quickly ignored. Companies usually list too many values – some seven or eight of them , which are all utopian in nature. These are impossible to achieve. One or two of them will predominate, which may not at all be one of the seven “official” ones. Companies’ official statements of culture are what the leadership would like the culture to be. But what it actually is, will be determined , not by the statement, but by history and actions.

Companies often want to be “innovative”. They then insist that every $10 expenditure to be authorized fourteen levels up in headquarters. Fat chance of a culture of innovation coming up. Tyrannical companies often have “caring” as a stated value. They then promote and actively encourage the testosterone filled macho monster. And cultures need not be only on positive traits – many times they are “negative”. Greed often characterises many organizations – my bonus is the key and to hell with everything else. If that’s the prevailing virtue, no amount of shouting from the rooftops on team working is going to help.

What can be done to promote a certain culture ? Take one or two values that the leadership truly and personally believe in and drive it relentlessly. Non conformance to those values is not tolerated, even if you have performed brilliantly on other fronts (this is where companies often stumble – reward a high performer who consistently flouts your stated top value). And stick with it for a long period of time. But you can only try. Culture is an amorphous thing. It will develop in ways that are unforeseeable.

Why is this important to us ? Its important because increasingly, our way of behaviour as individuals will be determined by the companies we are affiliated to. In the past, it was determined by race, nationality or religion. Increasingly, as we spend most of our waking lives in the workplace, and as the world becomes flatter, it will be determined by the organisations we work in. You may have been born a very humble, self effacing individual. After 10 years in Goldman Sachs, you just cannot be that way !