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Culture in 8 words

Steven Green
by Steven Green on March 16, 2017

Culture has become a term that we wave at  companies like a geiger counter. Are they healthy or radioactive?  and-angel-cartoon-will-jog-for-food-clipart-best-clipart-best-tOvfbA-clipart.jpeg

“Uber has a sexist brogrammer culture.”

“Zappos is so concerned with culture that they’ll pay you to quit!”

“Culture is when the CEO takes customer service calls.”

“Have you seen Valve’s Handbook for New Employees? What a crazy culture that must be!”

“Culture is our highest priority and proudest achievement.” - Steve Everysmith Smithers, Ex-CEO

Here’s the most elegant and actionable definition of corporate culture I’ve come across. It even includes a great mechanism for revealing your own.  

“Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish”

These words are the title of a powerful post by Jocelyn Goldfein
, a former Facebook engineer and Angel investor.  I won’t try to improve on her reasoning. I couldn’t. But there is something I think she missed that I’ll address shortly.

Goldfein’s article opens with a revealing exercise. Sequestered with her company’s top leadership (she was working for VMware), the author and her peers are asked what they’d say to a new employee eager to succeed at the company.  

The chorus of answers, stripped of lip service, context and cliche and scribbled on a whiteboard, captured the behaviours that her company actively rewarded and punished.  Layered and re-layered over time, these behaviours defined its culture.  

Chances are they define your culture, too.   

Sneaky little experiment, huh?   Read the article, it’s worth your time.

 “It takes unanimity to establish a positive norm in your culture, but it only takes a little inconsistency to lose it”.
- Jocelyn Goldfein


Culture is not wrought from the bottom up

This is what I think Goldfein should have underlined:

If culture is a response to behaviour, then those who control the kudos and termination letters are its gatekeepers.  And if that’s true, then the most visible and most powerful person in the company has the most cultural influence, because that person guards the guardians.    

It's not corporate values or a mission statement

Culture isn’t what you say it is. Not even if you write it down. Especially if you write it down.

Unless you’re consistently asking ground-level employees for feedback, the gap between what you say your culture is and what it actually is will widen. We've got tools to help you ask.  


Or ping-pong tables

Team-building matters. Familiarity and trust help individuals cohere into productive units. But team building can also form in-groups. A ping-pong table can easily double as a gossipy watercooler, if that sort of behaviour is encouraged. Culture isn’t your amenities.

Or transparent

Transparency helps keep everyone connected to and trusting in the macro.  Nothing wrong with that. But you can’t make culture transparent, because it is invisible.  

Or 'authentic'

Culture isn’t authentic. It’s normative. It’s a structured, conscious outline of standards, expectations and behaviour.  Culture says, “if you behave this way you’ll be rewarded”, not “be your authentic self”.

If you have a strong culture, and hire to fit it, then yes, more employees can be authentic.

It's not monetary

Extrinsic motivators (fancy lingo for money and other outside-in rewards) don’t work. People want their workplace to be predictable, meritocratic and to recognize them for their efforts. We do recognition well, so do our customers.  

Each employee at
Workplace Safety & Prevention Services interacts with

our recognition tools more than 9 times a month.
Read their surprising story. 

Or one superb manager. Or ten.WSPS Recognition Case Study

A desert might have an oasis. That doesn’t make it a resort.

Or onboarding packages

Lovely. Welcoming. Not culture.

Items making up a new employee's welcome package are neatly arranged and seen as if the viewer was standing in front of it. It consists of a coffee mug, packaged iPhone and MacBook Pro, business cards, a pen, a t-shirt and a handwritten note that reads 'Welcome to the AppRadar Team'

It's not easy

Brilliant, hard-working, high-performing software engineers are rara avis. Irreplaceable. But if they are sexist stalkers, you fire them. Promptly and publicly. This may damage your ability to ship a product or meet deadlines. But if you don’t, you’ll end up with a broken, misogynist workplace.

Or static

You can’t trot down from Mount Sinai, hand over your cultural commandments and expect them to be right for your company two years later. Some aspects of your culture will need to change as you grow, struggle or take on new challenges. Make sure to ask, listen and adjust.

Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish. A consistent, predictable reaction to behaviour over time. 

Steven Green
Written by Steven Green

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