Why 'Corporate Culture' Is a Myth

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 7:05 AM EDT

If you've been reading this column regularly, you know that I am firmly opposed to public disembowelment. In most cases. An exception can be made for the snake-oil salesman who first peddled the notion that corporations should have adorable personalities.

Saying that companies have a "corporate culture" is like saying that Ivan the Terrible had a "management style." How can a multinational conglomerate with 47,000 employees in a dozen countries claim a common culture? How about an enterprise where nine different languages are spoken on the production floor and senior management can barely speak any?

What we mostly experience in business is a systemic pathology, often nothing more than a constantly shifting aggregation of disparate behaviors. Corporate culture began as a fairy tale back in the quaint, bygone eras when middle-aged White Guys ruled the planet (trust me, I've seen the fossils), and it remains so today.

The idea that a work environment has been purposefully constructed to guarantee specific outcomes is perfectly reasonable. Can it instill competencies? You betcha. It'll deliver efficiencies, even. But can it produce unifying mythologies and customs? Don't think so. Certainly no art, music or literature.

I understand how people might confuse culture with brand, particularly if they still get goose bumps listening to "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." My neighbor, Pat Hanlon, wrote an interesting book called Primal Branding that explains the seven key components upon which larger-than-life corporate brands are built:

  1. Creation story (like in the Bible)
  2. Creed (as in "this is the Cubs' year")
  3. Rituals (banging drums in the sweat lodge)
  4. Icons (dazzling the senses, from coffee to doughnuts)
  5. Sacred words ("grande decaf latte, please")
  6. Pagans (those who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid)
  7. Fearless Leader (from Buddha to Welch)
That's how you create a juggernaut consumer brand. But culture is an entirely different thing.

Since the label "culture" is so nebulous, it can conveniently mask or whitewash the true underlying beliefs and behaviors of any group, ranging from hospitality to bestiality. I prefer the more pedestrian term "values." Beliefs combined with behaviors equal values.

The values of a group might be honorable -- or not. Unlike the mushier name culture, with its connotation of a cozy melting pot or a delightfully harmonious salad bowl, values includes more than what is outwardly professed, endlessly parroted and tritely canonized on T-shirts and coffee mugs. It also encompasses what is implicit, often deliberately buried and denied. People may talk your ear off about their culture, but values can be seen in real-time ... as evidenced by real actions.

In my work as a recruiter, it helps me to think of companies as big, messy families with varying degrees of dysfunction ... despite the many talents and productive output of its members. In this context, the challenge becomes less about matching cultures than about elevating values -- bearing in mind, of course, how resistant systems are to anything other than mild, incremental change. But that's another set of encyclopedias I'll come back later to show you.

Meanwhile, the question CEOs may want to ask their executive teams is this: "How should we behave among ourselves and with customers to give us the best chance of achieving our business objectives?"

Who knows? The right responses might even breed some culture.

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.