Why company culture doesn't really matter

Your "DNA" is far less important than you think it is, say authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
Last Updated: 13 Jun 2019

Culture matters, according to the voluminous literature on the topic. As a team leader you are going to be told, repeatedly, that you must take stock of this because you are responsible for embodying your company’s culture, and for building a team that adheres to these cultural norms. You will be asked to select only applicants who fit the culture, to identify high-potentials by whether or not they embody the company culture, to run your meetings in a way that fits the culture, and, at company off-sites, to don the T-shirts and sing the songs.

But when people ask you what it’s "really like" to work at your company, you immediately know you’re going to tell them not about the solar panels and the cafeteria. You’ll get real, and talk about how work is parcelled out, whether many managers play favorites, and how disputes get resolved. You’ll get down to the two-foot level of how work actually gets done, and try to tease out what your company truly feels like to the people on the ground.

You won’t know whether to call this "culture" or not, just as you won’t necessarily know how to label each of these two-foot-level details, but in every fibre of your being you’ll know that this ground-level stuff is what’ll decide how hard people will work once they’ve joined, and how long they’ll stay.

In which case, your most pressing question, as a team leader, will be something like this: if I am to help my team give their best, for as long as possible, which of these details are most critical? Tell me the most important ones, and I’ll do my level best to pay attention to those.

To answer this question, the first lie we’ll need to expose is precisely that people care which company they work for. It sounds odd to label this a lie, since each of us does indeed feel some sort of connection to our company, but while what each of us truly cares about may begin as "company," it quickly morphs into something rather different.

While people might care which company they join, they don’t care which company they work for. The truth is that, once there, people care which team they’re on.

How can you make sense of the things that are clearly different from one company to the next, things to which you’re accustomed to attaching such importance? Patagonia does have a drastically different type of onboarding than Salesforce. Goldman Sachs does have a very different dress code from Apple. What are these things, and how are they different from the real-world experience of work?

The difference is this: these things are signifiers, designed to lure you in. You may not care which company you work for, but since you do care about which company you join, these signifiers are crafted to help a company attract a certain kind of person by highlighting what the company thinks this kind of person values. This is why these signifiers show up time and again in promotional materials, and why they are so prominent in various company rankings—because companies want it that way.

These kinds of perks are plumage—peacock feathers for people. They sound cool because they’re designed to get your attention, just like plumage is. So when you read about how a certain company gives each employee "20 per cent" time to focus on personal projects or claims to always promote from within, just remember that these beautiful feathers are designed almost exclusively to attract you, and that this attraction, as most attractions tend to, will fade.

The biggest difference, of course, between cultural plumage and the real world is that the impact of plumage on how you and your team do your work every day is slight. That’s not what it’s for. It is a shared fiction, and it exists to attract a certain kind of person to join the company. And as with all shared fictions, the moment you all stop collectively believing in the plumage, it vanishes.

Team experience, on the other hand (how you talk to one another and work with one another), has large and lasting impact on how you do your work, and it doesn’t require all of you to agree to believe in it. It is what it is. And whether or not you all believe in it or can all describe it in the same way, it will nonetheless influence both how effectively your team works and for how long, and how many of your teammates will choose to stay.

Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of Silver Blaze," in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (London: George Newnes, 1894).

When you study excellence and what leads to it — what creates it — there is a dog that doesn’t bark. Actually, a couple of them. Company doesn’t bark. And cultural plumage doesn’t bark. Instead, when we study excellence at work, what’s in plain sight is the groups of people doing actual work together—what’s in plain sight is teams.

This is why teams matter, and it’s why they matter much more than cultural plumage matters. Why?

--- Teams simplify. They help us see where to focus and what to do. Culture doesn’t do this, funnily enough, because it’s too abstract.

--- Teams make work real. They ground us in the day-to-day, both in terms of the content of our work and the colleagues with whom we do it. Culture doesn’t.

--- And teams, paradoxically, make homes for individuals. Whereas culture’s focus leans towards conformity to a common core of behaviours, teams focus on the opposite. Teams aren’t about sameness — they aren’t, at their best, about marching in lockstep. Instead they’re about unlocking what is unique about each of us, in the service of something shared. A team, at its finest, insists on the unique contribution of each of its members, and is the best way we humans have ever come up with of harnessing those distinctive contributions together in the service of something that none of us could do alone.

So when you’re next looking to join a company, don’t bother asking if it has a great culture — no one can tell you that in any real way.

Instead, ask what it does to build great teams.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. Copyright 2019 Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. All rights reserved.

Image credit: metatdgt/Pexels


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