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Your culture sucks. But that’s actually good!

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3 ways "bad" cultures can produce amazing results

Ask around. No one loved having meetings with Steve Jobs.  Or Bill Gates for that matter.  Both of these visionaries were known for verbally reducing their employees to rubble on a regular basis.  Would you call that a healthy culture?  Not quite.  Yet they built some of the most successful corporations in history… That seems to fly in the face of all modern corporate culture expertise, doesn’t it?  So how could such cultures actually yield great results?

Here are three ways your “bad” cultures may actually serve your company quite well:games-are-also-a-big-part-of-the-office-the-requisite-startup-ping-pong-table-sajid-mehmood-a-server-engineer-and-coby-berman-a-sales-coordinator-are-battling-it-out

1.  No fun Silicon Valley perks.  Is your culture boring?  Does it lack the stereotypical ping-pong tables, stand-up desks, or yoga rooms of Google or Facebook?  Well it’s not time to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to add these perks.  As Duke Rohlen, serial entrepreneur of CV Ingenuity fame, focused on instead creating a mission-driven culture, where “we don’t have ping pong tables; most of our offices don’t even have windows; but everyone rallied behind our mission: success.  In the end, even our front desk admin walked away with over a million dollars.”  Furthermore, it’s well known that Google doesn’t begin serving its free dinner until 6pm, ensuring that employees stay that late, and likely much later, to earn their meals.  Why not be honest with your employees and not need to default to these “tricks” of the trade?

Steve-Jobs-Angry-at-Analytics-Firms-Tracking-its-Devices-22.  Blunt, direct feedback.  As mentioned before, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates gave direct, unfiltered feedback all the time.  They weren’t very concerned with the feelings of their constituents, but with results that changed the future of personal computing.  Feedback can be very difficult to deliver, but oftentimes our attempts to “put things nicely” actually does more harm to employees than just giving it to them straight.  The “sandwich method” of delivering feedback (sharing positive feedback immediately followed by negative feedback, then closing with positive feedback) inevitably leaves the listener waiting for the other shoe to drop.  “Hey Alex, you’ve really done a great job with your team lately…” can leave Alex wondering “ok, what are you really trying to communicate?”

3.  Incentives: don’t pay for performance. In Dan Pink’s famous TED Talk, he discusses numerousdan-pink experiments that show financial rewards actually can reduce creativity and problem solving in our employees.  He goes on to tell about studies done by the Federal Reserve that showed only basic, obvious tasks were done faster and more efficiently when workers were rewarded financially.  Perhaps your culture doesn’t pay the most, or you don’t hand out well-calculated bonuses at the end of each quarter.  Not to worry!  Many companies with strong missions, for example non-profits, have shown that employee buy-in to the overall impact of the firm can yield far greater results than thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars ever could.

If “culture eats strategy for breakfast” maybe it’s time for some good old fashioned vegetables…

6 thoughts on “Your culture sucks. But that’s actually good!

  1. Very interesting post Brian. I have personally struggled to reconcile these two views of culture when there are so many examples of successful companies with terrible cultures. Although I feel more comfortable working for mission oriented companies (possibly with limited or no perks), I also understand that some people might consider them an important part of their working experience. As a matter of fact, research shows that some of the most common perks employed by companies are highly effective to attract and retain talent (i.e. working from home options).

  2. Hi Brian, great post, super thought provoking. I wonder if the only places and people who can get away with have terrible culture is if their mission and/or idea is truly great. For all of the others, you might need to invest in culture.

    I’m more familiar with the biotech world, and I used to know people who worked at a biotech start-up with incredible technology but with a culture that didn’t treat their people well. Turnover was high, and the people who stayed did so because they wanted to be part of that incredible technology. I’m less familiar with Amazon, but I wonder if it would also fit this mold.

    Also, a side bar – there are also biotech start-ups where there are no free meals regardless of how late you worked in the office. Scientists regularly stay hungry past 9 PM, and it was horrible. Given this, when I think about the Google meals restrictions, I can see how their intention could make sense. If people really need or want to stay late, they should be fed. It’s less about “earning” your meal and more about trying to make you feel less miserable if you have to stay.

  3. This is an interesting post. I think when people choose certain jobs and stay, it comes down to how one quality compensates for another less desirable aspect that they eventually are ok with given the good parts of the job. If the pay is amazing but the culture is crap, people will still stay for the money (Just look at how the banking world were able to keep people working at those schedules). If the perks are amazing but the mission of the company is not so appealing, people will still stay if they only care about doing their job but not what they are doing it for. I agree with you a successful company doesn’t have to have a great culture, but this gets me to wonder why there are companies out there who tries to give it all (great pay, great culture, great mission..etc.) when they could spend much less. I think it might come down to employee retention, and eventually the costs cut down by not having to retrain and rehire compensates for what they are spending on employees. And of course, the ideal to build “the best place to work.”

  4. Thanks for your post, Brian! I think it was especially interesting to read following santanaman’s post on culture as the silent assassin of many great leaders.

    Focusing on your first point:

    I agree with the sentiment that many of these perceived perks of working at big tech companies or start-ups are distracting, expensive, and perhaps even manipulative more than they are productive. While ping pong tables and nap rooms seem nice, I also think that most of us are able to get through our work days without such amenities, and agree that we don’t need and/or shouldn’t expect our company to provide such things.

    But, at the same time, what is interesting about such “perks” is that they often–not always, but often–signal to current and future employees that the company is invested in you as a whole individual, not just the you that is at your desk from 9 AM – 7 PM (wishful thinking, hours-wise?). And when one company starts to do these things, then the expectation across the industry is that its competitors will as well, and so spirals these bizarre interpretation of culture.

    I definitely don’t think that these perks are the only way to let your employees know that you care about them–I would much prefer stronger professional development programs, healthy feedback cultures (as you discuss in your second point), open discussions about next steps in my career, etc. And I also agree that just because your company doesn’t have them, doesn’t mean the culture is boring or bad. After all, as we learned, culture is much more about how employees make decisions–which is impacted by things like the founder, belief in the company’s mission, collaboration, and more–and not about these artifacts that seem shiny and fun, but in reality, might not add any real value to our lives, professionally nor personally.

    I will say though, at the risk of contradicting my comment that at the end of the day, if Google wants to feed me every day, who am I to complain 🙂


  5. Thanks for calling this out, Brian. You’ve taken an important stance in questioning the assumption that a nurturing (coddling?) culture and plenty of perks are non-negotiable — one that seems to underpin pretty much all of HR in Silicon Valley. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that having a terrible culture is a good thing. But I think what your post and these comments effectively highlight is that having a great culture alone isn’t *sufficient* to keep people on board. No number of free meals, free naps, free workouts, and (almost) free massages can make employees feel valued in and of themselves. These perks are simply external, tactical tools meant to convey certain values supposedly embodied by your organization. If the underlying values aren’t lived out in practice, I would venture a guess that the company begins to come across as insincere and the impact on the employee’s psyche would be even worse.

  6. Brian, found this post very interesting.
    I partly agree with you on the point that employees should not expect the perks that Google and Facebook provide when joining a company. Also, those perks are not the only factor that ensure high productivity or performance. As you mentioned, Steve jobs, Bill Gates and even Andy Grove promoted frugality and were very strict with their employees but were able to build empires out of their companies.
    However, I would be very interested to compare the employees retention and churn at Apple, Microsoft and Intel at the time compared to Google and Facebook today. I would assume that there is a high correlation between employees satisfaction (which is driven by their satisfaction with the work but also with the perks they get) and employees retention. I also assume that companies like Google and Facebook are better able to attract and retain the best talent mainly thanks to their great culture

    To give a concrete example, I interned this summer at Google while my friend interned at Amazon. Both companies have great brand name and are very successful. We both had very challenging projects to work on this summer. However, after my internship I realized the benefits of the support system that Google provided me to ensure that I was able to deliver my project. The support system includes the people and mentors that were available to help me as well as the perks that made my life so easier (having dinner in the office, being able to take breaks and disconnect while still being at the office). In contrast, on top of her project obligations, my friend had to deal with a very frugal culture, and a limited support system. Although her summer was rewarding, she decided not to go back to Amazon for a full-time offer.
    This is not a general rule, and other people may have had different experiences in each of those organization. But this is one of many examples that shows that a “great” company culture can help better attract and retain the best talent.

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