Culture Eats Everything for Breakfast

September 22, 2017Hugh Comerford

“…culture is the most important dimension of any CEO’s responsibility to an organization.”

John Veihmeyer, CEO KMPG

When a business starts up, its founders’ heads are filled with visions of success tempered by more modest images of less lofty things…mostly things regarding survival. In fact, the truth of the matter is most startups have little space for anything other than raw survival and as a result, the setting of the culture is established by default.

The personalities and energies of the organization end up closely resembling the founders and their first few trusted employees. If the founders are energetic, positive, focused and fun, that’s what the culture will be. Equally if the founders are driven, misogynistic, competitive and intolerant, you can guess the culture will reflect that as well. (see Uber)

Left unattended (which is typically where the dial is set) over time, work cultures eventually trend toward the negative because of countless factors including entitled early employees having sway beyond their scope, bad hires, behavioural effects of senior management impacting differently at the lower ranks, etc. (not the least of which is the tendency of humans to see things in a negative light to ensure survival…)

Endless statistics demonstrate in countless ways how important a healthy culture is to an organization’s success, yet the dial is almost always set to ‘not important’ mostly because of two paradoxical elements:

  • A culture is generally only properly perceived from outside the organization.
  • Consultants can do this work, but require enormous emotional investments from leadership.

It’s like the old adage that even though your brother is a spectacular idiot, you’re the only one who can call him a jerk because you’ll defend him from others!!

The lack of interest/understanding of how culture eats everything for breakfast (especially businesses) is rippling through Silicon Valley but no-one seems to know what to do about it.

The reason culture is ignored, admittedly at the peril of business success is because we live in a world where metrics are studiously calculated and yardsticked using methodologies like LEAN and Six Sigma, however culture is maddeningly difficult to measure without reducing it to its constituent elements.

The enormous challenge of course is that culture is: invisible, odorless, tasteless and only defined by its violation. It is (paradoxically) apperceived externally by outsiders engaged in the exercise to deliberately observe and define it from the outside, because to be on the inside is to become acculturated.

That last point is worth the pause to think about — it’s hard to define culture but it’s easy to know when someone has behaved outside of it because it generates a visceral response. A rule has been broken that you didn’t even consciously realize was there…until the crime was committed!

So while culture can only be lived from the inside it also can only be defined from the outside because on the inside if Jamal yells at John and it’s explained away as ‘You know Jamal on Mondays…”, then that is evidence the observer has lost the capacity to see the behaviours of the people inside the organization detached from the culture, and therefore unable to see them for what they really are. In this instance, inappropriate.

Whatever costs may be spent to deliberately cultivate a proper business culture in the early days of a business is literally a drop in the ocean compared to the costs of fixing one later on. Further, the financial benefits of having a cohesive, coherent business culture are as impressive as the astronomical costs of having a destructive one.

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