The Dark Side of Organizational Culture

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Apr 5, 2019

The credibility of corporate mission, vision and value statements as an accurate depiction of culture is under the collective microscope.  As employees begin to hold their employers accountable some basic questions remain unanswered:

  • Can one sweeping statement bespeak value to all stakeholders?
  • Can the promise a company makes to customers and shareholders be the same promise it makes to employees? Should it be?

In the war for talent, this presumably well-intentioned strategy of “one statement fits all” leaves most organizations lacking.

Three famous examples

Apple’s original mission statement: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”

Facebook’s original mission was to “Make the world more open and connected.” In 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg revised it to “The power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Google’s mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Such clear purpose and promise for positive global impact.

Yet, evidently, those who buy in are submitting to something in practice less visionary and altruistic.

Some realities

In 2014, Facebook and Apple offered to freeze their female employees’ eggs. It’s a rare “perk” that Google later began offering to attract and retain women. But one wonders if the other reason is so they could focus on their work without being distracted by that pesky biological clock, as well as other distractions such as life outside of work.

In 2015, a story broke that Googlers who couldn’t afford Bay Area housing were living in their cars, or in nap pods in the Googleplex. It also speculated on their lack of a sex life.

And then there’s Amazon, with its vision to be the earth’s most customer-centric culture — which holds much in common culturally with Silicon Valley, despite its Seattle-based HQ.  In 1998, a former employee self-published a piece called “How I escaped from the Amazon cult.” Here’s a telling excerpt:

Seattle-area job seekers will continue to be seduced by the cleverly worded classified ad designed to induce fits of digital envy in its target audience: ‘Customer Service Tier 1: Lame Title—Cool Job . . . Internet concepts . . . incentive stock options . . .’ Virtual poetry for a high-tech, low-wage, post-industrial marketplace.

In 2015, The New York Times slammed Amazon’s culture, even quoting a former executive who called Amazon “the greatest place I hate to work.”

Others have likened Amazon’s culture to the 70’s horror sci-fi cult classic The Stepford Wives, aptly remade in 2004. If you haven’t seen the film, the real women are replaced by subservient humanoids that would never be happy doing anything else, anywhere else.

Mission as cult

Again, look to the 1970s when organizational culture was just getting its sea legs.

In 1975, Sam Walton began the “Walmart Cheer” while visiting a factory in Korea. This cultural mantra was meant to keep workers (making less than minimum wage) pumped up about the Walmart mission: “Saving people money so they can live better.”

Decades later, in 2001, The Economist labeled Walmart’s Saturday morning meetings “Saturday morning fever” and labeled them “part evangelical revival, part Oscars, part Broadway show.”

Thus began the pursuit of the “cult” in culture which, as we’ve seen, Silicon Valley took to a whole new level of intensity.

Organizational culture today

Why is it that in 2019 we’re still buying into cult-like company cultures? That a nebulous variation on the theme of saving the world still attracts the best and brightest?

Jack Delosa, entrepreneur, culture expert and founder of Sydney-based The Entourage, explains it like this:

Modern workers want to buy into a dream: To feel what they do has a purpose and that they’re contributing to something greater than themselves.

But Forbes contributor Maureen Henderson takes a slightly darker view:

“The cult hysteria of the 60s and 70s may be long past, but our willingness to join exclusive groups with strange customs in search of a sense of belonging, elitism and self-worth is alive and well. We’ve just replaced discussions of the end times with speculation on upcoming IPOs.”

Having purpose, or “Doing” purpose?

Scads of CEOs and CHROs believe that the mere act of creating a mission statement is an important team-building experience. Indeed, that approach is idyllic. Picture a carefully selected, broad cross-section of people who come together to collectively write a statement of purpose.

Said statement is both specific and aspirational. Feedback from other employees is sought, considered and incorporated. The finished product is an authentic expression of the company’s purpose.

Unfortunately, according to Chris Bart, long-time management expert and CEO of Corporate Missions, Inc., the process rarely goes down like this. Instead, the act of creating a purposeful mission statement becomes a CEO / CHRO pet project bounced around in a tiny echo chamber of allies. In his experience, around 10% of mission statements actually express purpose and value.

“Most mission statements aren’t worth the paper they are written on,” Bart laments. “That’s the sad reality.”

The purpose is real

So, if Bart is right, and a mere 10% of mission statements are culturally legitimate, let me ask you something: As talent professionals and business leaders, don’t we have an ethical obligation to ensure that the “purpose” we claim to possess is real, versus a marketing phrase that’s been dreamt up behind closed doors?

I believe we do.

Again, I’ll reference Jack Delosa who believes your company’s cultural expression should be “…about uniting people around a purpose, collectively sharing and working toward a vision. It is about creating an environment that inspires and enables people to do their life’s best work.” In other words, it’s not the catchy tagline. It’s the experience.

Sorry, but it needed to be said.

The action required for this fix is, in theory, quite simple. Your employee value proposition, mission, vision, etc. should be based on — wait for it — actual tangible value that you offer to your people. Otherwise, as is evidenced in recent news, your employees will bring you to task.

Employees driving culture change

The widespread media coverage of last year’s Google employee walkouts brought attention to serious internal issues in the tech giant.

Then there’s Facebook, whose purpose of connecting the world is unraveling before the world’s eyes. CNBC shared this employee retort to Sheryl Sandberg from an October 2018 town hall:

I was reticent to speak, Sheryl, because the pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts. There shouldn’t be this pressure to pretend to love something when I don’t feel this way.

Other employees reportedly broke out in applause. Stepford Wives much?

Twitter’s employee base, on the other hand, has yet to rise up but seems poised for cultural implosion.

Twitter’s mission statement:

“To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve – and do not detract from – a free and global conversation.

With a notoriously liberal workforce demographic, the global legitimacy they’ve gained from Trump’s rampant use of their product isn’t sitting well internally. The New York Times found that Twitter employees were reluctant to open up about their misgivings, though off-the-record a few said there’s internal debate about the service’s role.

Don’t let a fearful, tentative speak-up culture happen to you.

Are you genuine?

Keep yourself honest. Step away from your marketing lingo and take an intentional detour into purpose and value.

Ask yourself the hard questions:

  • What kind of culture are we promoting and selling?
  • Is it genuine? What are we demanding of our talent when we ask for “culture fit”?
  • How specific can we be when speaking of culture change?

And lastly, put yourself in the job seeker’s shoes. Because, let’s face it, sooner or later we are all candidates in the war for talent. Ask yourself: Is there hard evidence anyone should believe the bill of goods being sold?

Culture with purpose is possible

Here we all are, almost 50 years after Sam Walton tried to set culture with a song and issues persist.

As talent leaders, we all have some serious work to do. But take heart. Armed with a clear sense of purpose and one foot in reality, I’m confident we can escape the confines of cult culture.

I’ll leave you with this iconic message from Brian Chesky to Airbnb employees circa 2014:

Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture.

Whatever your culture, keep the faith.