Corporate cultural studies

Aug 31 2009 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

I've been doing some thinking about the term "corporate culture" lately. Everyone throws the term around, they know when something doesn't fit their culture (especially when someone's being fired for not fitting into it), but they can't actually describe what it is.

How do we measure and describe culture? Well a couple of trips through Wikipedia told me that two of the best ways of knowing something about any culture, whether the Yanomani tribe in Brazil (who have no identifiable leadership hierarchy) or your Sales department (ditto) are through the study of relics and rituals.

Relics are those items cultures think are important. If you find something buried with a chief, odds are it was important to them.

For example, tombs in Egypt often contain the pharaoh's wives, lots of money , gold and more than a few cats. From this, we can surmise that cats were important to Pharaohs. (My cat, of course, believes that the pyramids are cat tombs and that pharaohs were therefore important to cats but they're like that).

Here are some of the relics you find in companies, and the conclusions you can draw from them:

The first dollar the CEO ever made: Rich people like to show you the first cheque their company ever received, or the first dollar they ever made. But what kind of message does this send?

Either they are so unnaturally attached to money that they've held on to it long past the point of reason or they've never been so broke they needed to look at that foreign money they kept from holiday and wondered if the conversion rate was worth it just so you could put gas in the car. (Pounds, yes, Pesos not so much)

Either way, does that make them someone who can relate to the folks on the production line? By the way, any entrepreneur who can afford to keep and not cash the first cheque their company generated did it on Daddy's money.

Pictures from the "President's Club" sales trip in the newsletter: Rewarding your revenue generators is fine. In fact it's critical, but all the folks filling the orders and holding down the fort in Chicago or Glasgow in February don't need to see you sucking down pina coladas in your Speedos. In fact no one needs to see you do anything in your Speedos, we don't care how many contracts you closed in the last quarter.

Mass-produced Posters with Pithy Sayings in the lunchroom: You've seen them- posters of a mountain at sunrise with "INSPIRATION" in gold font and words of wisdom written underneath- or worse, a kitten doing something unspeakable to a ball of yarn which is supposed to get us to cheer up.

What this tells your employees is that the $37 you wouldn't spend on the pizza lunch was better spent on cheesy, unoriginal posters designed to make them work harder and like it. How's that working out?

Rituals, on the other hand, are those things companies do that tell you a lot about how they operate. Some of the more telling rituals are:

October budgets for a January fiscal year: ahhh, autumn comes and with it the changing of leaves, the reinstatement of the dress code and the submerging of managers into mysterious meetings from which they emerge shaken, disheveled and unable to discuss what's happened.

These mysterious rituals mean two things: no holiday time between October and November (someone has to cover while the boss goes into budget meetings) and the firings will come right at Christmas time in order to start the new fiscal year clean.

Employee of the Month awards: In theory this ritual is designed to make one employee feel very, very good about themselves. The others, not so much.

When this does work, it's at large companies. If you have fewer than 12 employees and a "no repeats" rule, then even your worst employee is in line for this honour, they just have to not get fired for the next 11 months. Then of course once they've won employee of the month it's on their permanent record and makes it that much harder to fire themů

The Yearly Performance Review: Just as in the ancient Egyptian "Festival of Drunkenness", once a year like clockwork the whole organization comes to a complete halt while people work themselves up into a frenzy, do things they would normally never do and find out if they've been favored or abandoned by the gods.

This is particularly worth watching if the company has one of those lovely "bottom 10% must go every year" policies. Then it becomes just slightly less of a blood sport than bullfighting with about the same odds for the employee as the bull gets.

Maybe there's a future position open as a corporate anthropologist? We all need one more use for that humanities degree our parents warned us would never do us any good.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He's passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today's virtual communication technology. His books include The Long-Distance Team - Designing Your Team for Everyone's Success. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.