Why There Is No Culture Neutral

Why There Is No Culture Neutral

Recruiters and trusted advisors always recommend that you make sure you’re a “cultural fit” with an employer—and with good reason. An entrepreneurial soul may feel restricted at a company that favors the tried and true; likewise, a relationship-oriented person may feel out of place when algorithms are valued over human judgment.

You perform your due diligence and if you feel confident that you’ve found an environment where you’ll fit in, you sign on. So why is it that so many employees end up feeling out of sync, apathetic, or as if they no longer belong? Did the culture change and they didn’t notice? Did they misjudge the culture in the first place?

While both things are possible, there may be a simpler explanation: too often, people join a firm because of its culture, and then do nothing to add to or promote it. The culture of any organization is the sum total of how all employees relate to each other, their shared attitudes, and their collective approach to how things are done. Employees may give lip service to going along with what they perceive are the accepted and expected behaviors and values but don’t actually exhibit them.

There is no such thing as being “culture neutral.” If you are not supporting the values of what makes the organization distinctive, you are rowing in the other direction.

The Pay Check—An Obligation Beyond Work

Not everyone has to be an outspoken corporate cheerleader; your personality may not be one of exuberance. But what you do and how you do it are as important as what you say. Do you do your job with enthusiasm, with the goal of adding not just to your own bottom line but also to the overall well being of the organization? Or do you just go through the motions, mentally checking off your performance against what’s outlined in your job description? If it’s the latter, ask yourself why—and think about a shift in position, either literally, with a new job, or figuratively, with a new attitude.

You may think you’re being “neutral,” but nobody stays neutral for long. Employees who “get the job done”—and go no further—may end up getting warehoused, but aren’t likely to get promoted or be given the opportunities they hope for. That easily leads to hostility and resentment, and then you’re really working against the culture, consciously or otherwise. You might have job security of a sort, but you’ll probably have little job satisfaction.

Corporations have every right to expect that in exchange for pay, employees will fulfill the duties of the job spec and contribute to sustaining and improving the cultural environment. The relationship between an employer and employee is no different than any other: intent and effort are needed to make that relationship flourish and to maintain the “magic.”

A Shared Responsibility

Why should companies care as long as you’re getting the job done? Because culture matters. Corporate culture can add to or detract from brand identity and corporate image, and it is often a critical component in attracting talent and to holding on to it. In a 2015 study from Columbia University of some 2,000 CEOs and CFOs, 78 percent saw culture as one of the top five factors that determine the value of their organization; more than 50 percent saw their firm’s corporate culture as impacting productivity and profitability. Only 15 percent said their culture was “exactly where it needed to be;” 92 percent admitted that improving their firm’s corporate culture would enhance the value of the company.

The latter two stats point to the fact that just as there is no such thing as “culture neutral” for the employee, there isn’t for the company, either. Too few corporations appreciate and understand this. Those that don’t either ignore or pay insufficient attention to shaping organizational values, guiding behavioral norms, and creating a climate where employees truly understand and appreciate “how we do things here.” They will reap what they have sown.

A consultant friend tells a story about one of his clients, a relatively new CEO at an instrumentation hardware company. A couple of months into the new job, the CEO was approached by one of the senior sales reps who told him the company had overcharged a client by some $25,000 and was wondering what he should do about it. That the sales representative had to ask for direction suggested to the CEO that he had either a rogue employee on his hands or a much bigger issue. Sadly, the latter was the case, as the sales representative was a perfect expression of the culture and its values.

Cultural Realignment

The phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is attributed to Peter Drucker, and while the phrase may be apocryphal, the frequency with which the phrase or some variation of it is quoted shows the potency of organizational culture. Companies need to do an honest assessment of their corporate climate, the cultural environment, and the accompanying values that are accepted and displayed on a daily basis. If what is going on is not in harmony with what is stated in the mission and values statement, then a serious realignment needs to occur.

As part of that cultural realignment, companies must begin a dialogue with the workforce on expectations for the forward trail. This should include the fair exchange that is proffered on what it means to work in this organization and that the expectation is that everyone will be working the values on a daily basis. Employees need to know that they play a much-needed role in keeping the organization in a good place, and appreciate that there is no such thing as “culture neutral.”

  • Jess

    “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – culture can, in fact, be managed, something absolutely not to be overlooked.

    May 21, 2018 at 9:09 am
  • Amanda Meeson

    I LOVE this. “There is no such thing as being “culture neutral.” If you are not supporting the values of what makes the organization distinctive, you are rowing in the other direction.”
    Well said. Active engagement working IN and FOR the culture. Thank you, Chuck.

    September 20, 2019 at 3:57 pm

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