This year has seen some high-profile examples of when company culture starts working against you. Travis Kalanick’s resignation as CEO of Uber in June was the crystallisation of Uber as the seminal cautionary tale for when celebrated start-ups go bad. Their exaltation of values such as “Always be hustlin’” and customer “obsession” seemed like laudable, forward-thinking aims at the outset. But as we saw, over time, they contributed to a bro culture environment where top performance and #winning was prized even over being “brilliant jerks”.
At Post*Shift, this has got us thinking. A huge misconception about company culture is that it’s about picking which behaviours to prioritise to the exclusion of all others. Whilst this makes for great comms soundbites about your values, like most things, the reality is a little more nuanced than that.
Focussing on only a small set of values risks leading to over-use, which then spill into unintended and undesirable consequences. In Uber’s case, performance was valued so highly that they turned a blind eye to aggressive behavioural infractions as long as you were hitting your numbers. As a less extreme example, being customer-driven is widely perceived to be a good thing. But a company that over-uses customer-driven attributes could end up unquestioningly fulfilling customer demands. Not only would this lead to a lack of a coherent strategy but often customers don’t know what they need.
Of course, the answer can’t be to suddenly stop listening to your customers or not care about your results. But how can companies avoid developing a myopic approach to their culture? Here are some of the ideas that came out of our reflection on this topic:
1) Identify and develop your counter attributes
We have a working theory that the antidote to over-use of a particular attribute of culture, is an equal focus on an attribute(s) that would balance it. So, the risk of over-doing your customer-driven behaviours would be tempered by also making purposeful, curious and data-driven key parts of your culture. In that way your focus on customers is always backed up by data, insight and alignment to your goals, preventing the over-use behaviours discussed above. We believe the attributes of an adaptive organisation that we measure in our Quantified Org Diagnostic Test work to balance each other out in this way and are considering mapping this as an extra layer of analysis to a future version of the tool. But in the meantime, try considering the values that you encourage in your culture and ask whether they work as the antidote to over-use. If not, you may need to identify your counter attributes and work on these too.
2) Democratise your culture
Over-use behaviours can be harder to temper if your cultural attributes are heavily influenced by one or a small handful of leaders at the top. This is of particular risk to start-ups due to the shadow that founders cast over what is important the company. Before the organisation gets too big, it’s a good idea to separate the company culture from those at the top as early as you can, inviting all employees to take a role in defining and shaping it. At Post*Shift this is an ongoing conversation, albeit one that can be challenging to find time for around the essential work of growing the business. However, we try to be intentional in making some regular space in existing meetings such as our quarterly retrospectives, as we know this will pay off long-term as we welcome new employees.
3) Prioritise hiring for diversity
A major trend in resourcing over the last few years has been hiring for culture-fit. The problem is this can often lead to an unconscious bias towards “people that think like us”, which is a huge disadvantage to your business and can lead to problems in over-use of cultural attributes. Homogeneous groups working inside organisations will find it hard to attract new customers, innovate their products and attract talent. One of the ways we are keen to avoid this as we grow at Post*Shift is through continually iterating our hiring process to find ways of hiring for diversity not only in obvious demographics but also in background, experience and neurological, cognitive style. This may require changing how we test and interview candidates, and where and how we look for them.
This topic is a work in progress for us at Post*Shift and we’ll explore some of our discoveries in more depth in a future blog post. But until then, here are some further links on the subject to spark ideas:
- Uber board member Ariana Huffington on how she is tackling zero tolerance for “brilliant jerks”
- From the Post*Shift Archives: The attributes you need for a functionally fit culture (which all have counterbalances in our Quantified Org Diagnostic)
- An IDEO oldie but goodie blog on hiring for cultural contribution over cultural fit
- How Adobe balances employee and customer focus
- A look at Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods this year and what this means for their seemingly opposed cultures