The Five Default Corporate Cultures

Years ago I worked in a firm that had no culture. At least that is how I viewed it at the time. It was the middle of a .com boom and magazines like Wired and Business 2.0 talked incessantly about cultures of innovation, cultures of creativity, the culture of the new economy, etc. It was all good, and no one was talking about the darker side of corporate culture. Now the older, wiser me recognizes that in the void of intentional leadership I was experiencing a "default" culture.

A few days ago I was listening to Greg Kyte and Jason Blumer talk about an HBR article on corporate corporate culture. Just like my days at that old firm, most of the talk was about good culture. Then Greg said something about "default" culture that brought me back to those days in my old job. In the absence of focused, intentional effort to build a positive culture a different culture will develop, a default culture. It is my opinion that there are a handful of default cultures. Like weeds, they crop up when no one is trying to cultivate something better.

Working for the weekend

This probably describes the culture most employees experience. Work is something to be endured. Management provides a paycheck for which the employees should be grateful. That check can only be enjoyed when not at work. And, by god, if you want me to stay late it better come with overtime or comp time. If you wonder if you have this kind of culture just count how many times you hear the words "hump day" on Wednesday morning.

It wasn't me

if you have ever had a colleague tell you more than once "I know I sent it, check your spam folder," you might be living in this kind of culture. It is full of excuses, and the only thing that most people care about this avoiding blame. The problem is that nothing can ever get accomplished. The entire organization is only concerned about the status quo while maintaining anonymity by "flying below the radar." These cultures feel more like a high school study hall period than a place where meaningful work gets done.

Cults of personality

in this culture the company goes as the boss goes. If the boss is having a bad day the company is having a bad day. Employees are subjected to equal parts narcissism and schizophrenia. They learn the most effective ways to manipulate the boss while trying not to be labeled a brown noser by their colleagues. This culture seems to be particularly popular in the "nameplate" professions of law and accounting.

Money money money moneeeeey

In this culture advancement is the name of the game. Everyone is keenly aware of titles. The guidelines for advancement are the most dog eared sections of the employee manual. Taking credit is a varsity sport while giving credit is a sign of weakness. Turnover is steep and choice assignments are doled out like political favors. In my .com days our President came from P&G. As we moved into a new office building I caught him counting the ceiling tiles in each office to compare square footage before he assigned them based on titles. That's all he knew from the culture he'd grown up in. 

I Don't Wanna Love Somebody Else

These are some of the most pathetic and life draining places to work. The employees feel sorry for the owner's predicament while the owner takes advantage of the employee's charity. Opportunities to advance are nonexistent because the company itself is going nowhere. Self-esteem is low and clients are mediocre. The only thing missing is a going out of business sale.

If you recognize one of these cultures in your company there is good news. You can change it. It is hard, long, tedious work. But it can be done. Realize that many of the employees are as addicted to the culture as you are, even though they hate it. Some of them will not be able to make the change, and you will have to part ways. In almost every instance the culture is going to require some outside help. The first step is calling out the culture you have and deciding to make a change.  Commit to it, invest in it, and don't settle for a default existence.