No surprise, I think about culture a lot. Every time a company lands in negative headlines, you can count on seeing the words “toxic culture” in at least half of the associated articles (full transparency: I do not have data to back this up).
We blame the culture when things go wrong at our companies, similar to the way we blame the stock market or the economy when things go wrong with the parts of our lives we don’t feel we directly control. We talk about culture and the stock market and the economy as if they were sentient, with agendas and goals that don’t take our well-being into account. The toxic culture is responsible for widespread sexual harassment or predatory sales practices. The stock market fell today in a reaction to some bad news. The economy stubbornly resists growing or turning around as fast as we would like.
I understand the shortcut in expression. I use the same shortcuts all the time. In using these shortcuts, though, we’ve created a situation where we have forgotten or ignore that WE are the culture. That when we talk about the stock market and the economy, we’re talking about indices and metrics that WE control and to which we contribute. It makes the problems of culture and the economy unsolvable, because when we discuss solutions, we address the the symptoms of the monolith rather than the underlying disease because it’s easier.
Corporate culture is made up of every decision every employee makes every day. If we’re lucky, the Code of Business Conduct reflects the culture we have. If we’re not, the Code of Business Conduct is a document of varying degrees of visual grace that gets contradicted by the campfire stories and lore in which our employees are immersed.
If we’re not involved in the stories and the lore, we can’t impact culture, and the only way to write the stories and drive the lore is to make the right decisions that feel awful, like firing a manager who is a top performer but who also propositions every direct report, or digging deeper into a department that is outperforming its peers for no apparent reason.
We can throw resources at the culture when things go wrong, but unless we address the millions of decisions that created the culture in the first place, all the money in the world won’t fix it. We have to change our employees’ minds and hearts, which takes money, emotional commitment, and time.