Corporate Culture – What is it and how do you “read” it?

Corporate Culture: What is it?

by Anne Thornley-Brown M.B.A., President

Executive Oasis International

Some blog entries takes weeks or even months of research to come together. Others just come to you. A few months ago, I answered a question that Andrew Calvert posted in LinkedIn’s Q&A section.

  • How do you “read” the culture of an organization?

I responded by putting my thoughts out there as they came to me and completely forgot about it. I just received word from Andrew that he had selected my answer as Best Answer. Naturally, I was delighted. When I read my answer I though, “Sounds like a blog entry to me”. So, with only slight revisions, here it is. Enjoy and please add your comments, reactions and experiences with postive and negative corporate culture.

Random Musings About Corporate Culture

What is “corporate culture”?

A definition of corporate culture that I find useful is:

Corporate Culture:

“A collection of the values and the myriad written and unwritten rules, expected behaviour, and norms that govern interaction and decision making within an organization”. Think of it as the dos and don’ts that determine what behaviour gets rewarded and what gets punished in an organization.

Corporate Culture Counts

Corporate culture is powerful. A negative corporate culture is hazardous to one’s personal health and the financial health of the organization. One thing is certain, if senior management does not take steps to shape corporate culture, it will deteriorate.

Companies that invest millions of dollars in advertising and neglect corporate culture are penny wise and pound foolish. The explosion of social media and websites that give people a chance to rate their companies gives unhappy employees more and more channels to vent. It is really important to ensure that when employees go home at the end of the day or leave to work somewhere else, they say positive rather than negative things about your company.

I have witnessed enough mergers to realize that when an innovative company merges with a more traditional and conservative organization, the more negative and deeply entrenched culture will always prevail unless there is a strategy to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Zappos CEO Tony Hseih drives home this point in the following video.

Zappos Corporate Culture Profile

A positive corporate culture is a definite source of competitive advantage. It will help you get the very best out of your people.

Savvy executives know how to shape and harness it to ensure that it is a constructive force that facilitates the achievement of corporate goals.

Westjet Corporate Culture Profile

How do you “read” corporate culture?

An interesting exercise I do with corporate teams is ask them to work in small groups and come up with 2 lists reflecting what is expected in their organization “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt not”. It becomes similar to The 10 Commandments. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for inventing this exercise but it is very telling and the lists quickly give one a good sense of corporate culture.

Corporate Culture and Business Meetings

Another way to uncover these unwritten aspects is to observe what goes on at corporate meetings.

  • Who speaks first?
  • Whose ideas are rejected?
  • Whose ideas are accepted (even if someone else who was ignored came up with them first)?
  • Whose jokes do people laugh at even when they’re not funny?

Corporate Culture: Comings & Goings

It’s also interesting to observe when people arrive in the morning and leave at night.

I worked in banking for 2 years. It wasn’t creative enough for my blood so I quit and took time to focus on my acting career before returning to corporate life. In some bank branches the unwritten rule was that one must arrives before and leave after their boss. Then, there was the game that involve the comings and goings of documents. Your senior would ask you to make changes. After that, you would go through that with your boss and the manager of the department. Finally, it would go to the branch manager who would ask you to change the document back to the way you had it in the first place. Add to that the pressure to suppress your personality and never, ever show a smidgen of emotion. It was a game that I wasn’t about to play. I wasn’t alone. When I left the bank of 25 MBAs who started the same day that I did, there were only a handful left. I still have a low tolerance for foolishness and folly.

Corporate Culture, Fables and Fairy Tales

I often find a fairy tale or fable popping into my head that captures the essence of a corporate culture. I don’t set out to do this. It just happens. Maybe it’s due to boredom or perhaps it’s the result of an over-active imagination.

For example, the Emperor’s New Clothes is one of my favourite as it reflects what goes on in many companies. NEVER tell the emperor that he is naked, meaning the boss that he is wrong.

Another fairy tale that pops into mind is the one about the fox guarding the hen house. For example, I am fascinated that, often, the people who have the most difficulty interacting with members of visible minority groups are put in charge of diversity initiatives or asked to conduct diversity workshops. It happens so often that I have often wondered if it’s by design.

I’ve never done this as an exercise with a group but it would be interesting to ask people to work in small groups and identify a fairy tale that reflects the essence of their corporate culture.

Just for the heck of it, just did a Google search to see if anyone else has approached corporate culture by looking at fables and fairy tales. I figured surely I am not THAT brilliant. I found some interesting blogs and I have included them as resources.

Game Shows and Corporate Culture

Game shows can also be a helpful way of looking at corporate culture. Think of Let’s Make a Deal or The Price is Right and all kinds of parallels to situations in corporate life come to mind. How about Family Feud as a paradigm to reflect the degree to which some companies become entrenched in silos?

Corporate Culture and Reality TV

Watch any reality TV show and you’ll start to recognize the cast of characters at work. A while back I did a blog entry about Survivor and the parallels between contestant behaviour and the behaviour one sees among co-workers. I recently wrote a blog about corporate culture at Charm City Cakes and Hell’s Kitchen.

Corporate Culture and Popular TV Series

Another way of looking at corporate culture is by examining how it through the prism of popular TV programmes. For example, one can draw interesting parallels between toxic corporate cultures and The Borg of Star Trek. The way in which the creative team for Star Trek tackled The Borg storyline was absolutely brilliant.

On Star Trek, the driving force of The Borg collective is perfection. They attempt to achieve it by enforcing uniformity and conformity. Some corporate cultures are like that. Perfection becomes an end in and of itself rather than a means to satisfying the needs of clients. There is no margin for error. Senior managers and team leaders set unrealistic expectations. Even though they are not perfect, the leadership team in these organizations demand perfection from team members and punish mistakes that have little impact on the ultimate goal of providing excellent customer service.

“Resistance is futile….you will be assimilated…”

Any corporate culture that compels employees to suppress their individuality and punishes those who fail to conform is similar to The Borg. It’s one thing to promote a shared set of values, foster innovation and encourage team members to treat one another and clients with respect and dignity. It’s quite another to, in Borg-like fashion, force conformity, suppress individuality, and punish team members who express different points of view. Some companies reflect an almost “hive mind” mentality by punishing those who express points of view that are not identical to the rest of the team.
As you watch this video, every time you hear “The Borg”, replace it with the name of any company with a toxic corporate culture and the parallels will leap off the screen.

Some corporate cultures, like the one for which 3M is known, use a different approach. They place a priority on innovation and encourage employees to come up with new ideas. They even have contests to reward team members who think of new ways to extend the life of existing products. 3M has had in extending the life of Post-it notes. This has come by rewarding differences and new ways of thinking rather than punishing it.

Corporate Culture & Dress Down Fridays

Definitely, it is important for employees to dress in a professional manner. No one wants people showing up for work in cut-offs, torn jeans and flip-flops but some corporate cultures define dress code so rigidly that employees become almost like The Borg with their cyber implants and clone-like appearance. They think the same, act the same and look the same.

Dress down or casual Fridays also tell you a lot about corporate culture. The unwritten dress code is very powerful. It’s not written down but heaven help the team member who does not conform. Observe how employees dress on casual days. It’s an excellent indicator of the degree to which conformity is expected. Yes, how one dresses on casual days can be a career limiting move.

I remember working for one company that had “dress down Fridays”. For the longest time I didn’t dress down. I just wore my regular business clothing. I was criticized for being “too stiff and formal”. Eventually, I caved in and started to dress down.

As I didn’t become a Dockers and golf shirt clone, there was even more criticism. Call it the stubborness of youth. Call it an unwillingness to compromise. Also, I just didn’t see why I should invest in golf shirts when I remembered a time when many golf clubs didn’t even accept Black people as members. (I guess Tiger Woods took away that argument.) If truth be told, I guess the real reason I insisted in wearing red track pants on dress down days was because I knew it bugged a few people. So, when I got sick of the whispers, I said, tell you what, “let’s go back to too stiff and formal and leave it at that.”

The irony of this is that, not too long after the “stiff and formal” saga, I took up horse riding and became a serious polo fan. By choice, I started to wear polo shirts and I still wear them when I feel like it. Polo shirts, golf shirts, what’s the difference? Would it have killed me to wear a golf shirt? Of course not, however, at the time, the loss of individuality was too just too high a price for me to pay just to “fit in”.

I also remember a certain engineer who used to wear leather pants and drive a motorcycle to work. By all accounts, he was a brilliant engineer. I’m not sure why people had such a problem with the leather pants. He wasn’t meeting with clients so it really didn’t matter. I found him refreshing and I am in touch with him to this day. By the way, he’s ditched the leather pants and he no longer drives a motorcycle. 🙂

Even airlines that draw on a military model and provide uniforms for crew members, offer enough variety in the wardrobe to allow flight crew members to express a sense of individuality. When I was an Air Canada flight attendant during my university years, we were able to choose from a variety of dresses, skirts, blouses, and pants that used the same fabric and patterns in a variety of colours. In most countries, banks that used to have uniforms for tellers have scrapped them so long ago that many people don’t even remember them. So, why is it that many corporations have such rigidity in their “informal” code of dress? It’s an indicator of the rigidity in their corporate culture. It will bring a company into direct conflich with their most creative people and that’s a shame. The Generation Y crowd are inclined are definitely wired this way. If they thought the Gen Xers with their earrings and other piercing were tough, it will be interesting to see how corporations handle the influx of free thinkers that is about to hit them.

The bottom line is that people are often punished more severely when they break an unwritten rule than one that is explicitly stated. This emphasis on externals wastes valuable time and energy that could be invested in things that really matter such as improving products and service delivery.

Corporate Culture: There’s More to it than Meets the Eye

This is a fascinating topic and one can come at it from so many angles. Corporate culture isn’t just about rules. It’s also about:

  • the role of “fun”
  • the extent to which new ideas are rewarded or punished
  • whether or not it’s okay to disagree with your boss or other team members
  • whether or not you’re expected to go to lunch with your boss and co-workers even if you can’t stand each other

There are all kinds of non-tangible that add up to define a corporate culture.

Corporate Culture: The Bottom Line

Companies that are too political and have corrosive corporate cultures can lose some of their best people to competitors. Some people love corporate politics and enjoy playing the corporate political game. Others have little patience for it and leave to set up their own businesses. As a consultant who has taken that route, one of the saddest and most disappointing experiences is to return to a company where there was once joy and laughter and find that, years later, it has been replaced by a toxic work environment and a culture of fear and intimidation. It’s similar to a garden. Weeds are guaranteed to overrun the garden unless they are pulled out and the garden is properly tended. In the same way, corporate culture requires care and tending.


Photo Credits: Michael Arrighi (Flickr)

I look forward to your comments. If this you know of other blog entries or articles that explore these themes, please post them. I’ll definitely explore this again in a future blog entry.


3 thoughts on “Corporate Culture – What is it and how do you “read” it?

  1. Maranda says:

    There is nothing more stifling to creativity than a toxic culture in your job. I have worked in both kinds of environments and I wouldn’t change the way that my current business works. We have a great time together and we laugh while we work. I’m thankful to work for people who understand that this is where I spent most of my time and that being happy is an essential part of productivity.

  2. Devid Pul says:

    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You have done a marvelous job!

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