What IS the Right Culture?

Culture Galley by kingdom of dreams
Image by kingdom of dreams

Normally, it’s hard not to read articles on workplace culture. The Yahoo! mandate to end telework and return to the workplace has sparked a tidal wave of such commentary. All of these articles invariably discuss the right culture, which of course begs the question, “What IS the right culture?”

To me, that’s an extremely open and subjective question.

It’s amusing to read the social media marketing and masthead bloggers take this topic on. They almost always leads to a mandate for an open transparent culture that’s fully interactive with everyone weighing in. “This is social business, the heart of the 21st century enterprise!”

What’s good for the social media company is not necessarily true for real world businesses.

Actually, far from it in many cases, for example, defense contractors. Defense contractors by their very nature deal with national security issues, making it extremely difficult to be open, much less vote on uncomfortable work environment issues like retina scans.

The Necessity of Uniqueness

culture by alshempcr
Image by alshempcr

Each culture will be unique to the organization’s leadership and mission. Dictating “the right culture” is like telling every young boy he needs to be like Michael Jordan, and every girl that she should wear pink when she grows up.

On the contrary, a recent Deloitte study “Culture in the Workplace” shows that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success.

Huh. But if everyone has the same culture that is correct by bloggers’ dictates, how can a company distinguish itself?

Granted, there are some scientifically proven aspects of culture that dramatically impact morale, performance, and productivity. My cousin Ben Waber has a book coming out this May called People Analytics that used sociometrics to determine workplace levers that create these improvements.

I asked Ben what he thought the biggest myth circulating the blogosphere is on workplace culture. He responded:

“A huge myth out there today is that culture is set by management. While this CAN be true, it isn’t necessarily the case. Management can’t directly force people to behave in a certain way without disastrous results.

“To create a great culture, companies have to focus on setting up the environment in such a way that people are going to naturally interact and behave in a way consistent with the organization’s cultural goals. Management also has to set an example here, letting people know that it’s okay to go out for lunch with co-workers or take a coffee break. These changes combined will start to influence employees’ behaviors, but it’s not a one way conversation.”

Perhaps a company that’s finishing third in search wanted to set a new tone. The New York Yankees make their players shave and cut their hair, and they seem to make the playoffs every year. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

Culture. Each organization is unique.

Value Culture

Look, we do know some things about workplace culture like friction between coworkers sucks; people need to feel that they have a voice, are empowered, and their contributions mean something. Work should be as fun as possible.

Culture is critical to a company’s long term health and retention. It’s something that is rarely upheld in companies, and employees often feel that there is a big disconnect between what they experience and what executives believe. Culture is often a pivot point for differentiation and separation.

It’s important for companies to constantly work on their culture. But let’s make sure each company’s culture is uniquely theirs, and not some faux utopian blogosphere vision of cookie cutter social media righteousness.

What do you think?


  • I have consulted for hundreds of companies over the last thirty years. In my experience it is _not_ a myth that culture is set by management.

    Over and over again I have observed organizations where the culture mirrors the people (sometimes the person) at the top. Flaws there invariably translate into dysfunction in the organization. The exceptions are when management is aware of its weaknesses and makes a conscious decision to delegate the functionality that would otherwise be affected.

    Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often.

    • I was a bit surprised by Cousin Ben’s comments, but I know he has some great data to back that up. The first sociometer book, Honest Signals looked at influence and it was quite amazing. Hopefully he’ll drive by and add some additional color.

    • Adrian, I definitely agree. Management certainly influences the culture the most, and at the very least is the driving force behind motivating everyone else.

      I think it’s a question of leadership, rather than culture. As leaders are unique in their own right, so their company culture will be unique in its own right. But if you have someone who leads poorly, or even someone whose attitude and deference to others is negative and unhelpful, the company culture will not be a healthy one.

      The focus on altering company cultures should be diverted to educating individuals, and helping them to understand more fully how they are influencing the rest of their employees in a serious way.

  • “..not some faux utopian blogosphere vision of cookie cutter social media righteousness.” <–Perfect. Tom Webster kicked off a good discussion of this issue on Facebook. The fact is: none of us was hired at Yahoo's CEO, and Marissa Meyer knows a whole lot more about the diagnosis of the patient and the medicine needed than a bunch of Monday morning blogging quarterbacks. So let's give it room and see how things progress…

    • It actually made a lot of sense to me. I know my opinion is as worthless as the next bloggers, but if you are struggling as an entity sometimes buttoning up makes people more professional. Shave before work, make your bed, wear a collar.

      This company is in third place and diminishing right now. She didn’t get hied to continue a losing culture.

  • Visit Zappos. You will never be the same after you see it in action. NO, culture is not set by management, but the environment is…

  • Interesting topic. I read something recently that said the twentysomethings are staying at a job for an average of 2.5 years before moving on. Corporate culture has changed dramatically as more people are not only changing jobs (no more working at one company your whole career) more frequently but it also seems like companies are changing the cultures to keep their employees and produce more productive teams.

    My first big job was working at Merrill Lynch and this type of corporate culture didn’t exist. It was sell, sell more and have contests to reward the best producers.

    • I think that sell, sell culture still exists in some places. It’s the way of the gun I think.

      In fields like technology, companies need to have great cultures to ensure they don’t lose their programmers. So, I agree, it is a critical retention strategy. Thanks for coming by, Peg!

  • When I read the reactions to the Yahoo mandate, both positive and negative (there are some positive ones out there), I’m getting that it’s not just about the telecommuting, it’s about the reversal. There was an article I commented on last night which asked why Google isn’t being slammed for not allowing remote workers.

    Well, they didn’t implement the system, fail at it with lack of a proper management layer (or whatever the reason really is), and then abruptly do away with it to the peril of workers. Google just said no, and stuck to it. Not to say I’m defending Google. Used to be a hard-core Google gal, now I’m wary.

    Getting back to the point of your article- there’s fixing a culture and there’s forcing a culture. I think Yahoo is trying to force it and thus, will fail. They could have dealt with this issue a lot less harshly, or on a case by case basis. Yes, they’re trying to keep the Titanic from sinking, but unlike with a physical vessel, public perception matters.

    Of course, I don’t know who Yahoo’s public is anymore. It’s been ages since I logged into anything from Yahoo but Flickr. And even then I have to use my Google account because I haven’t been able to get my Yahoo password to reset for years.

    • Well, when you are already failing and diminishing you have to do something to turn around. Telling people to button up and show up to work makes sense to me. There is no perfect way to tell people their benefits are being taken away from them. In fact, it is always a negative.

      And I’m not sure I agree that this is a public perception fail. I don’t think Yahoo! customers care, only bloggers do. We see this over and over again where bloggers and media get up and arms and the market moves one without them.

      Frankly, Yahoo! will lose some employees over this. Maybe they are the right employees to lose.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that I have enough facts on the situation to properly speculate if the decision itself is right or wrong. For all I know, their call center sucks, so does the management, and they should all get the boot.

        And ordinarily I’d agree with you that since the blogosphere and social media crew are up in arms in a way that’s disproportionate to the rest of the world, the view from inside the bubble is distorted.

        My point about public perception is coming from two places. 1- how often simply ignoring a vocal minority is a mistake. Sometimes a small vocal group is pointing to a weak point in a company no one else is looking at.

        2- It seems a rash decision to cut off one’s arm because a finger is bleeding, and if I was going to do business with another company, this is one of the things I would look at. Why not fix the finger? Is this the only point of failure in the company? I’m certainly not privvy to all the changes happening at Yahoo. But this one does make me think about how this must look to whoever Yahoo’s current customers are.

        That of course assumes they care. Maybe they don’t. Maybe only a handful do. But just like with social media or business, it’s not always about the people with the numbers.

  • Good day, Geoff,

    I would hazard to guess that Marissa Meyer knows a hell of a lot more about what works and what doesn’t work than most in the blogosphere. This might be a silly analogy (but you did mention the Yankees ;) … Rudy Giuliani took a lot of crap when he used he own methodologies to clean up NY. The zero tolerance he instituted was said to be draconian, but it sure worked. Maybe Yahoo just needs a drill sergeant ;)

  • There’s another word for what Ben said: Leadership! I’m just thinking out loud now, but… great leaders create positive cultures, and weak leaders create de facto crappy cultures.

    There’s obviously a lot of wiggle room in there (eg, the leaders may not come from the formal leadership), but I think that might hold up to scrutiny…

  • Geoff,

    Culture is never owned and is always a work in process. You have to pay the rent on it every day. It’s not about control, but rather the ability to lose control.

    I was having this exact conversation with Carel Nolte. Carel is a senior executive at etana, an insurance company in South Africa. etana as a market leader has a very open and unstructured culture. Carel stressed that you need to set the tone and manage expectations from the top, but that ultimately culture is what happens when you allow team members to do things. etana knows that revolution (culture) starts from the bottom. They let employees know that they don’t need buy in from the top. One sentence by Carel summed it up in one sentence, “Don’t do what I say, do what is right.”

    Words to live by.


  • Culture is critical, and it can sometimes be lost…hopefully just briefly…when new stressors hit a company. You fall into a task-oriented mode, and the day-to-day relationships can suffer.

    Somebody on the leadership team then has to recognize that trap and kickstart a movement back to the culture that made the company attractive to top performers in the first place.

    If it just gets down to a money-grab, then a mercenary environment will ensue (people will just chase the almighty buck because all other things…like culture…are equal). That is why it did blow my mind when Yahoo when counter to the popular movement of supporting a balanced work/life environment with a mobile worker component.

    It is now VERY short-term thinking to only look at that bottom line. Judge people by performance and delivery vs by hours of “butt in seat”.

  • Pingback:How to Make Remote Work Actually Work | GREG VERDINO

    […] For another take on the ties between work style and corporate culture, see what my friend Geoff Livingston has to say. […]

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