An argument about culture

amorphous ball culture

Culture is an amorphous concept. It’s hard to pin down, harder yet to shape. So before we get ourselves in a twist trying to figure it out, maybe we should ask: does it really matter? Well, it depends on who you ask – even the experts disagree.

In the Forbes piece, “Why Culture is the Hottest Trend Today,” Josh Bersin argues that focusing on culture is critical for businesses today, because job seekers have the upper hand and they care about workplace culture. Contributors to the Harvard Business Review beg to differ, in Culture is Not the Culprit. They argue that business leaders shouldn’t focus on fixing culture but rather on solving business problems – that culture evolves from business decisions, not the other way around.

I’m going to argue that they’re both right. You can’t save a failing business by making it a nice place to work, but you also can’t ignore culture and hope it trots along nicely. And in the end, we have to grapple with the complex truth that business decisions and culture are inseparable – the kinds of decisions we make inform culture, and the culture of a business will influence the kinds of decisions that we make.

In the first case described in the HBR piece, for example, Ecolab experienced growth that was threatening their historical strength in customer focus. The solution was to push decision-making to front-line employees and invest in their training. “Eventually, managers began to let go and trust their employees – which was a huge cultural shift.” This seems to support the idea that good business decisions naturally lead to desirable cultural shifts, right? But how and why were managers able to make this shift? Because higher-level leaders made it a business imperative – they communicated and reinforced that this level of delegation was a valued priority through thoughtful recognition and rewards. If managers had not been encouraged to or able to make this cultural shift, then the solution would have failed. This doesn’t say to me, “make good business decisions, and culture will follow.” It says that culture underpins your business decisions, so be savvy about how you implement those decisions. Business leaders can’t assert a directive (push down decision making!) without attending to the subtle cues embedded in the organization that can make or break it.

I also think culture can be a canary in a coal mine. Like Josh Bersin points out, culture and engagement are strongly associated. People prefer to work in places with a positive culture. They want to feel valued, involved, and that what they do has meaning and purpose. They want to feel trust and respect among leaders and coworkers. If they don’t? Well, you’ll see high turnover, low productivity, higher rates of counterproductive behavior, etc. These troublesome outcomes can be a result of a lame culture. But often that lame culture is a result of short-sighted business decisions. Business decisions that don’t prioritize employees in order to focus on “the bottom line” miss the link between employees, engagement, and the down-the-line bottom line.

This is highlighted in another case from the HBR article, involving the CEO of Delta, Richard Anderson. Anderson realized the acquisition of Northwest would require an investment in improving employee relations, as Northwest had a highly unionized workforce and adversarial employee-manager relationships. Anderson committed to improving training, schedule flexibility, compensation and benefits, all of which dramatically improved trust in leadership, ultimately leading to deunionization and improved retention.

It’s not surprising that the business decisions discussed in the HBR piece sound a lot like what we talk about when we talk about improving culture: autonomy, employee development, transparency, purpose, flexibility, trust. Culture is an integral part of  business, and you can’t make a change in one element without a corresponding change in the others. So the question about whether we should focus on culture or “just doing business” is a red herring – they both matter because they are inextricably related.