If You Promote Bad People, You Promote Bad Culture
Most of my cynicism toward the corporate world is safely directed into my new book these days, so there’s not a ton of spillage onto the blog. But I’m going to make an exception today and talk about corporate culture. To understand some of the terms I’m about to use, you can buy the book, if you’re so inclined, but you can also see an original definition here in this post.
I originally intended for my notes on this topic to make it into the book, but one of the main uplifting themes of the book is that I see programmers creating a professional working arrangement in which the corporate idealist doesn’t exist. And since deliberate company culture, which I’ll refer to as “corporate religion,” is largely theater for idealists, spending a lot of time talking about it in the book would be somewhat superfluous (I do mention it, but not extensively). But that’s not to say that corporate culture and religion don’t matter. And, all these half-formed notes I have ought to go somewhere. So, here they are.
Corporate culture is more or less defined by three things: what it takes to advance within the company, and what it takes to stay in the same role within the company, and what it takes to be walked out by the company. Paintball outings and “bring your pet to work” don’t define or even describe company culture. Perhaps more surprisingly, neither do things like company “mission,” “values,” and “principles.” These things, which constitute corporate religion, are mainly orthogonal to culture. Corporate religion consists of ceremonies, outreach activities, and the official canon (mission statements and expressions of “official values”). But none of these things are culture, any more than the Ten Commandments, New Testament, and church bake sales are the ‘culture’ of a rural evangelical town in the USA.
If you look up the definition of the word culture, you’ll have to scroll all the way down to definition number 5 to get to an actual definition of corporate culture.
For our purposes here, we’re talking about the social group “people who have opted to work at this company.” This means that we’re talking about behaviors and beliefs of employees when we talk about culture, and this is why culture and religion are disparate and sometimes orthogonal entities. Corporate employees are forced to attend religious ceremonies and memorize the canon, but what they actually believe and do outside of structured activities is another matter altogether. Plenty of people who show up to church every Sunday go forth immediately afterward and pound beer and gamble on football.
Corporate religion is created by opportunists for the benefit of idealists (and sometimes for themselves, if the opportunists are narcissistic enough to want to script their own beatification). Corporate culture is generated organically by mobility and politics within the organization. People come to work to make money, and getting ahead, staying put, and being walked out constitute more, same, and less money, respectively. Ergo, belief and behavior within the company are going to be dictated by “follow the money.”
If this sounds cynical, consider the simplest sort of example. I do a lot of work from home for a lot of clients. They pay me per hour or per assignment, and, in exchange, I supply labor or deliverables. At no point when sizing up this transaction do I perform an evaluation of their corporate culture (religion). It doesn’t matter to me if they have ping pong tournaments and it doesn’t matter to me if they value customer satisfaction or donate to local charities or whatever. I’m just engaging in a business-to-business relationship, so I care about their culture (religion) about as much as I care about how a store I shop in acts in the community (which is non-zero, but not-much). Nearly my entire interest in this exchange is financial.
The only real difference between my situation and that of a salaried exempt employee is that the employee marries himself to a single client, namely his employer. It’s still all about the money. Anyone telling you that it’s about more than that is either an idealist or an opportunist that believes you’re an idealist. People go to work to make money and will believe in what secures and augments that money and behave accordingly.
Take a family-owned company with prevalent nepotism. The answer to how one gets ahead will be, “you kind of don’t, except for nominal promotions, which are earned by pleasing the family.” The answer to how one stays put is “tolerate the dysfunction” and the answer to how one gets walked out will be “piss off family members.” The logical steady-state of this arrangement is a company populated entirely by mediocre people who are good at brown-nosing and blame-deflecting. The culture will be superficially enthusiastic and utterly rife with backstabbing, and it will all take place between saccharine displays of ‘appreciation’ for the owning family. The corporate religion will be the ultimate in the aforementioned narcissistic exercises.
Consider a high-powered, up-or-out law firm or trading firm, such as that fictionalized in the television show Suits. You get ahead through a combination of mind-numbing hours, dominance posturing, and meeting tangible performance measures. You get walked out for anything short of getting ahead, and you simply do not stay in place. The resultant culture is described as “tough” or “competitive,” and it’s really just unapologetically ruthless. There’s at least an honesty in this world that is respectable, after a fashion. Because firms like this make little pretense to be anything but meat grinders, there’s little religion outside of a hall of gladiators of sorts, designed to commemorate commissioned earners.
Finally, picture a software company populated by expert beginners. You mostly get ahead by hanging around, waiting your turn, and not being too overtly incompetent. Advancement and staying in place look largely similar, and it’s pretty hard to get walked out, even if you find yourself in the doghouse. More likely, you’ll just stay in place and be miserable. In this case, advancement, stasis, and regression all look pretty similar except as a function of time, so the denizens of this organization tend to value seniority to an extent that looks weird from the outside. In addition, the people with a lot of seniority will tend to be unpleasant to those less tenured, since time with the company is so heavily tied in with status. The corporate religion that emerges will tend to focus on concepts heavily implied by status quo — touting values like loyalty, stability, predictability, consistency.
Beware who you advance and why.
All of this ultimately boils down to a fairly simple concept, which is that the culture in a group endeavor, such as a company, really depends on how the humans involve interact and value one another. This is why I’ve seen (sensible) advice in the past to forget about buying pool tables to make your company cool and instead to hire the kind of easy-going, friendly people that would like one another enough to want to go play pool after work. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond that advice.
People at a company can intuit its culture, even though this happens mainly subconsciously. Idealists may deal heavily in the corporate religion, but it is, after all, pragmatists that run the motor of the company, and it is pragmatists that show up to church and space out for two hours with a fake smile on their faces (or, excuse me, show up to the company all hands meeting and space out for two hours with a fake smile on their faces). Pragmatists are more swayed by the culture than by the religion, and so a company needs to look after its culture (rather than simply trying not to be too obnoxious with its religion).
When you decide who at a company should be promoted and who should be passed over, there’s more at stake than simply whether a person deserves a titular increase or more responsibility in the org chart. Certainly, there’s more at stake than whatever increase in pay results. The very culture of the company is at stake, since it is defined and redefined with every organizational move like this.
If you promote people that do good work, treat others well, and command respect, your corporate culture will be one in which a basic, decent Golden Rule narrative is maintained. If you promote people that shamelessly self-promote, aggressively posture, and have domineering personalities, rather than people who do well and add value, then the culture will become one dominated by cynicism and resentment. And when that happens, your corporate religion is subverted from a potentially effective marketing tool to a cruel, bitter irony.