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Corporate culture is an amorphous concept at the best of times.
About the only thing you can be sure of is that when it’s bad, you know it.
The lousy utility company’s so-called ‘customer service’ call center; the uniformly unsmiling flight attendants working for that dreadful airline; the coffee shop with no atmosphere, dire food and non-existent service – when you interact with a business that has a soured or bad culture, it’s painfully obvious.
So the opposite must be true, right?
That you can tell a company has a great culture by experiencing the opposite – perky people, fun atmosphere, lots of excitement?
Those ping-pong tables, the cafeteria, the employee’s pets roaming the halls – that must mean we have a great culture, yes?
Oh, and don’t forget our ergonomic chairs, nap rooms and on-tap fair trade chai tea. With all that, our culture must be outstanding, surely?
Well, not so fast.
When it comes to corporate culture, ‘more’ doesn’t equate to ‘good’, and ‘even more’ isn’t a guarantee of ‘excellent’.
An organization’s culture isn’t like the guitarist’s amplifier in Spinal Tap – you can’t just ‘turn it up to 11’ and blow everyone away.
In fact, just as the cult of productivity has bred productivity porn, so the race for the coolest, hippest culture has bred culture porn – a grotesque misinterpretation of the whole purpose of an organization’s culture, driving the concept of culture away from delivering the highest possible stakeholder experience (the only viable reason for developing a culture in the first place) into preening, self-referential self-indulgence.
"An organization’s culture isn’t like the guitarist’s amplifier in Spinal Tap – you can’t just ‘turn it up to 11’ and blow everyone away." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success
Here are three signs your allegedly ‘great culture’ has morphed into a frankenstein with a life of it’s own – and is almost certainly distracting you and everyone else from actually doing great work:
1. Everyone is blown away when they visit.
Yes, it’s wonderful to have the occasional nodded head, jealous smile and barely-suppressed “Neat” from site visitors when they experience what your employees experience.
But if people walk around your offices or plant with permanent, jaw-slackened looks of amazement, maybe it’s time to reconsider what you have wrought.
Look, if most people remark on how lovely your kid’s eyes (or nose, or mouth) are, you might rightfully, and pridefully, conclude that you have one darn handsome kid.
But if people are flocking in tour busses to closely inspect his or her every feature and gesture, that’s some kind of a freak you have, right there.
Don’t equate outsider obsession with a good corporate culture. As JT Barnum proved, crowds throng to see some seriously weird stuff.
2. Your corporate vocabulary is esoteric and self-referential.
One of the most telling signs that an organizational culture has curdled is when it becomes cultish.
Often, this begins by using semantics to create a wall between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Outlandish (often twee) names are given to normal, everyday activities.
Everything – projects, meeting rooms, even meetings themselves – are branded internally with culture-centric nomenclature, and refusing to play along – using the wrong vocabulary, or speaking plain english – is seen as non-compliant or willful.
There’s nothing wrong with a great corporate culture that’s playful with its company or brand-name.
The Motley Fool, a world-class company with a world-class brand (also, in the interests of fair disclosure, a client of mine) is a great example of this.
But when you start using vocabulary in a way that cultishly emphasizes a distinction between us (those who work in the company) and ‘them’ (everyone else), you’re on the slippery slope to Spinal Tap self-parody.
Here’s a quick test: If your clients or customers enthusiastically and willfully use the same vocabulary, you’re probably OK.
If they resist using your twee phraseology, it’s time to dial it back.
3. Your CEO is on the speaking circuit.
That’s super-cool. I’m excited for you. One quick question: Isn’t being CEO of your business a full-time job?