Saturday, 15 August 2009

The culture thing

Its really tough to figure out what “culture” is. In a company. Just like any group of people - a community, a village, a country, or a race, - has a “culture”, so does a company. But its often very different from what the leaders of a company want us to believe.

Culture is a way of behaviour that characterises many of the people in a company. It develops as a consequence of a series of events in the company’s history, from the behaviour of its leaders, from the nature of people it recruits, and from what sorts of behaviours are actually rewarded and encouraged.

Companies tend to list a series of “values” that define their "culture". These are often motherhoods – mom and apple pie that that are quickly ignored. Companies usually list too many values – some seven or eight of them , which are all utopian in nature. These are impossible to achieve. One or two of them will predominate, which may not at all be one of the seven “official” ones. Companies’ official statements of culture are what the leadership would like the culture to be. But what it actually is, will be determined , not by the statement, but by history and actions.

Companies often want to be “innovative”. They then insist that every $10 expenditure to be authorized fourteen levels up in headquarters. Fat chance of a culture of innovation coming up. Tyrannical companies often have “caring” as a stated value. They then promote and actively encourage the testosterone filled macho monster. And cultures need not be only on positive traits – many times they are “negative”. Greed often characterises many organizations – my bonus is the key and to hell with everything else. If that’s the prevailing virtue, no amount of shouting from the rooftops on team working is going to help.

What can be done to promote a certain culture ? Take one or two values that the leadership truly and personally believe in and drive it relentlessly. Non conformance to those values is not tolerated, even if you have performed brilliantly on other fronts (this is where companies often stumble – reward a high performer who consistently flouts your stated top value). And stick with it for a long period of time. But you can only try. Culture is an amorphous thing. It will develop in ways that are unforeseeable.

Why is this important to us ? Its important because increasingly, our way of behaviour as individuals will be determined by the companies we are affiliated to. In the past, it was determined by race, nationality or religion. Increasingly, as we spend most of our waking lives in the workplace, and as the world becomes flatter, it will be determined by the organisations we work in. You may have been born a very humble, self effacing individual. After 10 years in Goldman Sachs, you just cannot be that way !

10 comments:

  1. How true - the lofty values that company honchos dream of translates poorly in paper. I have often observed during my 2 year tenure with a very "value centric" company, how they conveniently ignore their "value" when it becomes a kabab-mein-haddi in their business ops.
    These branding exercises no longer mean a thing to employees. It is a man eat man world out there and if companys can accept that openly, it ll save a lot of time abd paper!

    I am amazed at your knowledge of all things business. :-) My dad happened to refer to you as Aesop and I believe it is very apt! :-)

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  2. in my opinion, all these tall values that are spoken of on paper are awe inspiring for rookies who just happen to realise their 'great corporate dream'.. its especially hard on them, when they realise that these values were by and large only on paper..no one to look up to and follow.. finally its all about the money.. not generalising this.. happens in some pockets though..

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  3. @thoughtful train - I'm afaid instances of being true to values are rare indeed. Thanks very much for your uplifting comment - I'm walking on air today !! Aesop ? Wow !

    @AJCL - Yes, in general these are mere words, but if you happen to be in a place where the values are really true, it can be a wonderful experience.

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  4. Ramesh, in my view, the key factor that vitiates the development of a healthy culture - whatever you may want it to be - is inconsistency and the perception of injustice. Its all very well to tell the junior guy to fly coach - but if the VP flies business and then talks of cost-cutting, it smacks of hypocrisy and creates cynicism. You cannot keep these things quiet. Similarly, with injustice. Before granting promotions, before awarding abnormal compensation increases, anything, if managers were to truly ask if the reward will be perceived as "just reward" by the rest of the team, and not as a special favour, it serves to strengthen bonds. I have seen legions of cases where a guy tells his boss that if he does not get x and y he will leave and join the competition - or worse, the customer. And after that when you initiate one of these tiresome employee engagement exercises, people laugh and come along for the free booze. As Dickens wrote in "Great Expectations" - 'In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice". In the social organism that is a company, most employees are actually children in one sense. You are small at first, you learn and experience, you grow in skill and maturity, and one day you are a senior guy and then may be the COO or CEO. I feel it is better to think of employees this way. I do not suggest infantilising them - I mean that our childhood experiences and attitudes stay with us all our lives. Why would we be any different just because we work in a company?

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  5. Anonymous17/8/09

    Its so well put! There are some things which you simply observe and feel around you which you feel can't be expressed, you have brought it out so well.

    Its the same thing that I felt in 'Indigo'and for Indigo. (and its on purpose that I am using this name than its more politically apt name, to call the organisation where I last worked).

    Many thanks to the boss I worked with, who opened my eyes to seeing a work place with much bigger dimensions than what my fresher mind could have seen. Maybe it was a mix of two things, firstly, so deep-rooted was this culture, brought in by the legacy organisation that it commanded respect from any new person getting associated; and secondly, it was also my Boss' receptiveness to recognize & respect that cultural sensibilty.

    Its something more than the 'work-ex' that you mention on your CV, that you take away with you, when you say 'Culture'.

    Regards,
    Deepa.

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  6. @Dada - Well said. If the leaders are not 110% true to the spirit of the values, you can forget about trying to steer the culture in the direction you want. Dickens' quote is wonderfully apt.

    @Deepa - Thanks for a lovely comment. I can relate to every word that you have said ; I'm touched that you feel that way about our culture that we tried so hard to build. And every word about the "boss" is true - completely amazing how he just took to the place like a fish to water and mentors his team.

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  7. kiwibloke17/8/09

    Interesting - Values are usually learnt from your immediate boss and typically builds like a groundswell. No amount of 'culture intervention' & 'value alignment' exercises are really going to make a difference. Finally if you distill out all the value stuff into one single premise - thou shalt be good and honest. Now define your own 'good' stuff. Harder to define 'honest' (you had a couple of brilliant posts on ethics dilemma) but safe to assume that honest is generally the stuff you will do in public, on tv, with your own money or whatever else where you can be seen or caught. All the other stated seventeen or twenty 'values' most companies want to "instill or indoctrinate" will obviously follow

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  8. @kiwi - I agree itsa tough to channelise culture, but you can only try. Else it just grows on its own in all sorts of ways. Its real hard work.

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  9. Anonymous20/8/09

    Finnally I can read your blog, thanks for this business trip.. hehe..

    I like this one. 文化对于一个公司来说是一种思考和处理问题的模式, 当我们在一家公司待久了,就会被公司文化潜移默化,进一步成就了这种公司的文化,还会发扬光大。可是我们处理问题的方式更多的时候是被自己的老板所影响,在大型企业中,如果老板深受公司文化影响,公司文化就会被传承。。。如果不是, 员工就会被老板影响, 而不是公司文化。。。公司文化一定要有,但是老板才是关键。

    haha, Ramesh, I heard you are learning Chinese now, I trust you understood every word I wrote above...

    cc

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  10. Oh Carol - you are very naughty. The day when I can understand a written Chinese paragraph is about 4 million years away !

    But still, agree that the boss is important, but only in organisations that don;t have a well defined culture. In such organisations, bosses who cannot fit in often have to go. Haha - there are ways to understand ....

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