Organizational culture: obsessed over, misunderstood, oversimplified, and scapegoated.
“We need to change our culture”, “That place has such a toxic culture”, “Our culture wouldn’t allow for that” “The real problem is our culture”…
Sound familiar? Whether you’ve heard it at your own organization, or come across a similar premise in one of the many fervent cultural calls-to-action online, it’s clear to me that these days culture is on the operating table. Underlying all these arguments is a sense of urgency, and a belief that culture can and should be engineered, shaped, and managed:
Mold it, control it, strengthen it, change it, or it will change you! Your efforts will mean the difference between culture as organization-limiting obstacle, and culture as critical competitive advantage!
But the sloppy and imprecise way we talk about ‘culture’ also effects our thinking and speech about changing culture, so that we find ourselves awash in popular discourse that basically equates organizational culture change with switching the wallpaper in your house: a real pain in the ass, but nothing that you and a few friends couldn’t get done over a long weekend. Read more
I spent three days of last week at the HRPA Annual Conference here in Toronto. As always, it was a great event to reconnect with tons of brilliant HR folks in my network, as well as make new connections, and absorb ideas and knowledge from the many session speakers and keynotes- and this year was especially fun. As in past years, a couple of those speakers brought up ‘the Z word’…no, not zombies: ‘Zappos’. If you work in HR, or have any interest in organizational culture or employee engagement, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ve read all about Zappos’ approach to corporate culture. They’ve been referenced as a benchmark in this area for many years now, and although I have nothing against Zappos, this year the Z word gave me pause. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organizational culture recently, or maybe it was this recent Tim Sacket post decrying the obsession with ‘best practices’, but I just couldn’t muster my usual enthusiasm for Zappos’ legendary approach.
Perhaps the most common question I am asked by candidates in interviews is “What’s the culture like here?” And I understand why. Accepting a job offer after a few interviews sometimes feels like accepting a marriage proposal after sharing a taxi with someone, and this question has become standard candidate-speak for “What would it really be like to work here? But if you read my last post on organizational culture, you’ll know that I believe taken literally, the question “What’s the culture like here?” is much more complicated than it sounds. Read more
I was supposed to be an Anthropologist. Seriously. While completing my undergrad in Anthro, I was President of the students’ Anthropology Society. (Yep, I was that cool). So, you’ll understand that the topic of organizational culture is of particular interest to me. And organizational culture is having its HR moment right now…articles, blog posts, seminars- everyone seems to be talking about culture!
That’s why it’s especially unfortunate that we are so sloppy when it comes to what we mean by ‘culture’.