Looking Under the Hood of Corporate Culture

corporate culture, ethics, society, businessCorporate culture has been coming up quite a lot lately in our #KaizenBiz conversations. When you look at ideas about leadership, marketing, strategy and other business ideas, culture is usually not far from the surface. There is a lot written about what a corporate culture ought to be like and how it should include social responsibility and foster positive human dynamics. For the most part, leaders want to see their organizations live out their most cherished values. Chick-Fil-A is often cited as an example of this as they close on Sundays. Toms Shoes is famous for its “one for one” model of buying their shoes, eyewear or apparel and helping someone in need. Zappos is another example where they hire for character and pay people who don’t fit their culture to leave.

Pixar’s lesson

There is a great book excerpt on the McKinsey and Company blog by Ed Catmull about how Pixar eventually developed a positive and creative culture. Catmull explains that he and John Lasseter consciously designed a culture that was respectful of everyone in the organization. By making themselves accessible and role modeling their expectations, they thought they had created a culture that mirrored their desire. Then they found that there was this huge rift between the production and creative departments. The people in the production department felt like second-class citizens and the people in the creative department felt micromanaged. Catmull’s lesson, he writes, was that “[b]eing on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems.”  Same culture, different experiences.

Just because it’s part of your business model…

Catmull and Lasseter set up a business model in which communicating with management was encouraged (or so they thought and report rectified). In an HBR post by Jim Dougherty, it is recommended that the business model and culture be seen as connected. In the way a company externally and internally communicates and behaves with one another reflects both the business model and culture. This makes culture more of a social construct. A group of people come together and form a mini-society. It might be a highly dysfunctional mini-society with backbiting and a hostile work environment but this is a social construct. There are rules, norms and ethics. As in, this is how we do things here. It is communicated overtly and subtly from the onboarding process all along an employee’s worklife with that company.Think of messages like “we hold information back, we take time to have fun playing foosball and drink beer, ask Jane because she knows where the skeletons are, we do anything and everything to satisfy a customer,” or ” we never talk to Them.”

Different lenses affects ethics

Aiming to be the best company is an admirable and understandable goal. I don’t think anyone founds a business and consciously chooses to make it a miserable, soul-sucking place. Some founders don’t think past “let’s get the work done” and set up an environment that later becomes unworkable and unlivable. For other leaders, hiring the best candidates may support a culture of excellence but it may leave other aspects unexamined. There is also the moment when a company has grown so large that it takes far more effort to communicate and exemplify the preferred culture. People may fill in the gaps with their own ethical code or create a separate code from the prevailing culture. As an example, it may be encouraged to meet a certain type of quota by a deadline. The way the quota is met can range from complying with the overall culture or it may deviate into a utilitarian sub-code. A company’s culture is often an expression of how the people in it view one another and the whole of humanity as well as the value of wealth and success. These various lenses become drivers in organizational decision-making

This is such a brief overview of corporate culture and brings up more questions than it answers. So many of us think we know what the perfect corporate culture looks like. The question is, is it the same idea for everyone? It may be that one leader of an organization goes around acting like some kind of chieftain while another leader may act as facilitator or collaborator. One employee might view it is the totality of a social life while another employee just wants to get the work done and go home. Corporate culture could very well be dynamic as an organization grows and people come and go.

What really makes up corporate culture? Is it a mini-society with complex relationships and mores? Join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, May 9, 2014 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT to add your insights and expertise to our conversation.

How relevant is the company culture to creating revenue?

How does corporate culture reflect society in general?

With so many competing agendas, how likely is it for companies to foster a common understanding of who they are internally?

What role do ethics play in the expression of corporate culture?

 

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