April 6, 2018

Perks and Popularity Aren't Culture

The New Yorker recently had an article about corporate culture: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/improving-workplace-culture-one-review-at-a-time

One of the key points of the article was that the culture of a company and the quality of the culture are reflected in the comments on GlassDoor, the website where employees (or at least purported employees) can post comments about a company. You didn't have to read beyond the title to know that this was the author’s position: Improving Workplace Culture, One Review at a Time.

I will talk about why improving the reviews you get on GlassDoor will not necessarily improve your culture, at least by my definition. I am going to define "improved" here as the culture that better helps you effectively achieve your strategic outcomes.

But let's first talk about what culture is. One way to figure out what something is is by determining what it is not.  If your company serves, as the article states, the "most amazing Sri Lankan food" or allows you to bring your dog to work, that is super great for you, but that is not your company's culture.  Those are perks, as are bicycles, onsite dry cleaning, and sleeping pods.

The culture of your company is not defined by perks. The most parsimonious way to define culture is this: Culture is the behavior of your leaders.  Here are a few questions to help you start to define your company's culture:  What do your leaders always talk about...what questions do they always ask...at every review, at every all-hands, at every picnic?   What seems to be important to them based on 1) how they invest the company’s money, 2) how they treat customers and 3) in the way they actually treat the staff...not what they say is important, what they actually do? Do they approve of “cutting corners” or is process adherence and quality more important? Are leaders transparent about their unit’s performance and do they own the results or is obfuscation and finger-pointing more common? Are leaders out of touch with the facts on the ground or do they lead from the front? Are the stated corporate values abiding or only followed when convenient? Leadership behavior, repeated, become inveterate operating norms. Those norms are the culture of your company.

Leadership behavior, repeated, become inveterate operating norms. Those norms are the culture of your company.

The online reviews on Glassdoor as an indication of your culture?  Please. 

Forget for a moment whether companies are putting their thumb on the scale by asking employees to post comments or by paying GlassDoor to gussy up their pages.

Forget for a moment whether the reviews on GlassDoor are posted by real employees vs being posted by disgruntled former employees or even competitors.  

Forget whether they are representative of how all employees feel or whether they are mostly written by the ones with an axe to grind. 

Can you even trust negative reviews? The NYTimes recently ran an article that says you can't. As an aside, my favorite part was about how The Great Wall of China ("not very tall" "no USB plug-ins," "just sayin") and Shakespeare ("whoever said he was a genius lied unless genius is a code word for boring") also get negative reviews.

Even though that’s a lot to ignore, let’s do so and assume the online reviews are perfectly accurate and representative.  They still might not provide useful information about the effectiveness of a company’s culture.  To think about this in a different context, do the ratings of a Professor’s popularity provide information about the quality of the information being presented or how much was learned?  Students might not have liked a professor, her voice might have been grating, but five years later when you still can remember and are using what you learned in her class, how important to you is the fact that she wasn’t popular?

This is the point: whether they are accurate or not, the reviews about the popularity of your culture is not what is important. The issue is whether the behavior of your leaders...your culture...produces results that facilitate the achievement of the strategy. You might not like the culture established by Jeff Bezos at Amazon or the culture under Steve Jobs at Apple or the one under Ray Dalio at Bridgewater Associates, but those cultures described as relentless, brutal, and radically transparent respectively may in fact be the key ingredient in the track record of success in those companies.  And as counterintuitive as it sounds, people often flock to work in pressure cookers like Amazon, Apple, and Bridgewater, whether they serve Sri Lankan food for lunch or not, because they know how much they are going to learn and because they want to win.

Pay attention to  what your leaders do.  Ask whether what they prioritize and role model delivers the strategic outcomes or whether what they do detracts from effective strategy execution.  

Worry about that...a lot.  Forget about any rotten tomatoes that might be on GlassDoor...the Great Wall and Shakespeare get bad reviews too.

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