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Culture: A Double-Edged Sword


Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Companies who are famous for their “culture” are often just as toxic as anywhere else. I have spoken with many business leaders who wonder why their companies struggle with people and culture issues despite having built the company around a set of “shared values”. There are many factors that play into why a company’s culture is not embodied as desired by its employees; one of which being that culture is a double-edged sword. As with most things, culture and values can be wonderful if used correctly and terrible if used incorrectly, meaning that two companies with the same values can have wildly different cultures.


Let’s look at some popular, vaguely-worded values shared by many companies and how differently they can blossom.


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“Support Change”

The intent of this is likely that innovation and change are inevitable and you need to be comfortable with that. It is saying: Don’t get comfortable with the status quo because anything can change and most things will if the company is regularly coming up with new and better ideas. The idea behind this might also want peers to guide one another through confusing times and reach out for help when changes don’t make sense or they need some answers. This all sounds great!


Unfortunately, this can also be weaponized to punish anyone who so much as questions decisions made by higher-ups. If management institutes a new initiative that makes no sense to employees or seems to make things worse, this value can pressure everyone to keep their mouths shut and support the new initiative regardless. If anyone questions it or speaks out against it, they could be deemed to not be a good fit for the company because they are clearly not supporting the change. Anyone who resists a change will be accused of stifling the company’s innovation, not having the necessary mindset for the direction the company is headed in, and so forth.


“Transparency”

This typically means that decisions and outcomes should be made clear to everyone in the company. If something was decided on, everyone should be able to know why, what factors led to that decision, who will be impacted in what ways, and so on. It could also refer to payroll, where employee salaries are visible to everyone in an effort to combat pay inequality, ensure fair pay for all positions, and so forth. How noble!


Alas, there is a dark side to transparency. While transparency is great, it must be implemented and handled appropriately, otherwise, it can cause more harm than good. “Transparency” is often used as an excuse to publicly shame employees who are not meeting certain goals or may have made a mistake. It can be used to humiliate those who didn’t know any better or to chastise those who were just looking for a safe space to privately vent some frustrations.


“Go Above And Beyond”

There are few things more praise-worthy than doing even more than is expected of you. There is a desire for every employee to be the best they can be and to constantly improve themselves, the business, and the experience of their customers. This value celebrates those who pick up trash even though it isn’t their job and help their struggling peers even though they don’t have to. If everyone went above and beyond, every company would thrive!


However, this often means that people are regularly punished for doing a great job. This value is a gold mine for toxic managers who want to get rid of people on their team but can’t do so because that person consistently does their job. Instead, the offending reason changes from the work to the personality. The outcome of this situation becomes: “You are consistently processing exactly 50 orders every day. While you are only required to process 50 orders a day, you should be going above and beyond, so you are being terminated because you aren’t a culture fit.” The wording of value can pressure everyone into working excess overtime, working until they are burned out, taking on more than they should, and so on.


“Show Modesty”

Nobody wants to work with an egotistical and arrogant person. This value helps create a culture of people who strive to always do better; knowing that even if things are going great, there is still room for improvement. They don’t let compliments go to their heads and are always a pleasure to work with because they know there is no I in team. They focus on the team and the company rather than bragging about how great they are. This is something everyone can agree on.


Sadly, this often results in people being walked over and devalued. It would make sense if someone asked for a raise after several years without one, citing the many projects they’ve spearheaded and their impressive KPI’s, right? Unsurprisingly, this particular value gives the company room to deny that employee’s request on the grounds of them not being a culture fit. Demanding more money and bragging about all your accomplishments isn’t very modest, now is it? Employees will regularly avoid celebrating accomplishments, rewarding hard work, or asking for what they deserve out of fear of being labeled someone who doesn’t embody the culture because there is nothing humble about doing any of those things.


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There are many, many more values out there that cause great harm despite having wonderful intentions. This imbalance may be due to toxic management, processes and policies that don’t support the desired culture, or even a total lack of enforcement to ensure the culture is represented as intended. Whatever the reason, how the people within your company feel and act is your culture - not what words are printed on the wall. Don’t create values and expect them to happen. You need to constantly support and enforce the culture you want, less you risk creating the exact opposite.

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