The Culture of Culture-Washing

The Culture of Culture-Washing

In recent years, the perceived value of organizational culture has had the wind in its sails, and to be honest with you, I am very happy to witness this progression. The day I realized that organizational culture would become something important for me (it was not that long ago), it was just beginning to get people talking.

Since I have suffered too much from toxic cultures and very traditional or conservative management mindsets that generally use the “command and control” approach, seeing something a little more human and progressive is refreshing, and I am ready to rejoice for any step we take forward.

That being said, there is a rather unfortunate phenomenon that accompanies the rise in popularity of a healthy and pleasant organizational culture. A phenomenon called “culture-washing”.

When appearing is easier than being

When a concept becomes a trend, such as the going green and environmental awareness, the “washing” phenomenon generally follows very closely. In the case of the environment, many companies will display their products and / or services as “green” in a misleading way since they have not done anything extra to make them green. Even though some of these products or practices are absolutely dangerous for the environment, these companies still want to take advantage of the green trend. They are accused of doing “green-washing”.

In the same way, there are companies displaying the pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, and whose products contain carcinogen. This is called “pink-washing”: a corporation taking advantage of a trend to sell more products and hypocritically polish its image.

The phrase “culture-washing” comes from there. Organizations are accused of culture-washing when they pretend having a strong and vibrant culture, while the culture that actually thrives within their walls is completely different from the one that is put forward. Generally, it’s way more traditional than advertised, sometimes even toxic.

Many trends unfortunately have this effect. I come from the world of Agile in software development, and of course, 100% of IT companies say and pretend they are agile. No company wants to be perceived as “non-agile”. Everyone wants to be agile, but many organizations do not give themselves the means to take the slightest step forward in this direction. But that’s another debate.

The gap between these statements and reality is usually measured in light years. It’s sad, but it’s the truth: it is easier to pretend to be agile than to become agile, just as it is easier to claim to have a beautiful, pleasant and fun organizational culture, than to actually have one. We must pay attention to this kind of subterfuge.

The marketable culture

For several months now, we have been talking about this “labor shortage” in Quebec. The expression is not mine, hence the quotation marks, you know what I think of the terms “resources”, “human capital”, “labor”… Anyway, you know what I mean…

To overcome this shortage, many companies invest a lot of energy (not to mention budgets) in their organizational culture. And it’s a good idea: the organizations that will suffer in the future will be those with a poor culture, where people can’t flourish, and where political games, micromanagement and the “command and control” approach are part of the daily routine.

However, I still have a problem with the idea of building an interesting culture if the only goal is to promote this new culture. For whom, for what do organizations improve their culture? For future employees? To improve the KPIs of their recruiters and salespeople? To impress their customers? Or for the people who will live in this culture for 40 hours a week?

Don’t get me wrong, I will always be in favor of a strong and human-centric culture. But I think it’s a strategic mistake to develop it for the sole purpose of increasing sales or hiring.

I am a fan of Tony Hsieh, president of Zappos, who has built a culture so strong and vibrant that he can afford to make statements such as “Your culture IS your brand”. And I also like this statement, by Robert Stephens: “Marketing is a tax that you pay for having an unremarkable culture.”

Essentially, your culture must first and foremost be optimized and designed for your employees. A strong culture leaves no one indifferent, and people will naturally talk about it and become its ambassadors. A culture designed for the sole purpose of selling your brand more easily represents, at best, a misguided decision, at worst, a waste of money and time.

The carrot VS the cherry

Since having a strong organizational culture is trendy, it makes many companies want to have one as soon as possible. It is tempting to take shortcuts to “beat the competition”. It is usually at this stage that we start talking about the infamous ping-pong tables, foosball tables, video game consoles, thematic conference rooms and all that stuff.

These things are not bad per se. But having a table top hockey game does not ensure the presence of a strong culture. In fact, I’ve heard about a lot of companies that do have such games, but forbid their employees from using them on business hours. And with fairly severe penalties if one dares to do so. In this case, the message is quite clear: pleasure has no place during work hours. In the meantime, go back to your place, and work, you slacker. One might as well look for another job.

This type of approach, I call it “the carrot approach”. We offer a carrot (which, let’s face it, does not cost much and is easy to put in place) to attract people, while there is no strong foundation to support this initiative; there is only the stick. It certainly attracts a lot of people, who may be there just for the sake of coolness, but we do not know if these people are there because they like their job. And when things go wrong, however, it’s not uncommon to see the game console or the ping-pong table disappear, as if it was stolen by ninjas. And things quickly return to their usual nature: the stick. Those who were there solely for the carrot do not stay long after that.

I advocate for an environment where the basic culture is already very strong, and where these amusing things and games are only the cherry on the sundae. People will not leave if these playthings disappear: they are not there for them in the first place. They show up because they like to work there, are well treated, and can thrive. Video games and themed conference rooms are just extra fun.

The phony values

One of the most glaring symptoms of a poor corporate culture is when an organization has a list of values printed on a wall, and that generates cynicism on the part of employees, simply because they do not live these values every day.

An old joke says that if you ask a person from the reception desk to enumerate the organizational values that are printed on the wall right behind them without looking, they will only be able to list one or two. And it is to be expected when you have values that are ignored by everyone from the janitor to the CEO.

Corporate values have little value if they are only to have a “Our Values” page of a website, to bewilder clients, to impress vendors, or catch the eye of candidates. In this context, values are nothing more than a smokescreen made of fumes of cynicism that spreads throughout the entire office. Also, let’s be clear: to promise transparency, respect, and innovation when you do not intend to deliver, in the end, becomes an old cruel joke for employees. A kind of slow torture that lasts until they decide to stop hoping and go elsewhere.

By definition, a value is a principle we live by. If no one in a company lives by its values, we can not expect anything but cynicism. “Transparency, yeah right”. This kind of cynicism. When corporate values are trampled at any time of the day, it is not unreasonable to believe that employees will have difficulty trusting management or supporting its initiatives. Because we have already marvelously shown how something as crucial as values does not matter at all.

Integrity and consistency with your values

To have a vibrant culture, a company must treat its values for what they are: principles to live by. That means, if it a company has strong values, these should guide all decisions. 

Imagine a situation where an organization faces a dilemma with 3 possible solutions. Values, which should be the most important principles, let’s not forget, should be able to point to the solution that is best for the company. If the best solution does not fit at all with the values of the organization, how can it be the best solution? Or maybe it’s a good time to revise values if the decisions that are made always go against them.

Integrity and consistency mean, among other things, to do what we say we do.

Bosses who say something and constantly do the opposite sometimes find themselves wondering why their employees are not very loyal. It’s a bit normal. Corporate values must be treated in the same way. An organization that systematically follows the values it has put in place creates an environment of integrity and predictability. Employees should not be surprised when companies demonstrate that the decisions made are in line with the values of the organization. And THAT is a very effective way to strengthen a culture: when decisions become predictable because they are always aligned with values. For leaders of organizations using this approach, it is only a matter of time before they won’t even have to make the majority of decisions: employees, guided by values, will do it for them. Can you imagine what that implies? That’s the potential of a very strong culture.

Interpreting values

A very important trap in which one should not fall, however, is to have values that are too vague, and can be interpreted in many ways. Transparency, innovation, respect and communication, these are nice, but difficult act upon. These are vague concepts. “I talked with people today, so I communicated.” Meh. This is not exactly what the leaders had in mind, I believe, when choosing “communication” as a value.

Simon Sinek, known to many for his lectures and writings on leadership, and the importance of finding our “why”, offers a slightly more interesting approach than just a list of words. Instead, he proposes to change your values into actions.

For example, instead of having the value “innovation”, which means everything and nothing, he suggests “Approach problems from a new angle”. Ah, suddenly, it becomes a little easier to understand, and can be acted upon easily. Rather than “Communication”, it could be “Make sure information does not get lost,” for example. It is difficult to show that we innovated, it’s not very easy to measure. However, we can count the times when we have approached a problem from a whole new angle. This is an effective way to measure how much a culture sticks with the employees. And how much they own it.

In conclusion

Investing in your culture is an enlightened choice, as long as your goal is really to see this culture live and develop on a daily basis. Also, finding the desired culture is not just an exercise that concerns only the leadership of the organization. All of your employees will live between 35 and 40 hours a week in this culture, and the only way to make sure they support this culture is if it’s defined for them, with them. As Howard Behard, former CEO of Starbucks said, “Those who clean the floor should choose the broom.”

Those who will live in your culture have a good idea of what culture they want to live in. Do not hesitate to delegate to them this superb task of creating a vision for your culture, a strategy for putting it in place and strengthening it, and finding the reflexes and dynamics necessary so it can bloom. Give the desired goal, and let your experts amaze you.

In short, take care of your employees, and they will take care of your business.

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