The Culture Myth

The Culture Myth


Laurie Ruettimann headshot

The ancient Maya culture is known for its advancements in language, religion, and science. Deep in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Maya created a written alphabet, developed a mathematical system, and understood complex scientific principles such as astronomy. Did you send your kids down to Mexico on spring break? Chances are, in between beers, they visited the Chich’en Itzá archaeological site and marveled at one of the world’s architectural wonders.

The culture of a specific civilization—its intellectual achievements and distinctive qualities—develops slowly and methodically. Elders of the group model its best and worst attributes and pass them down through generations of dependents. In the case of the Maya, culture evolved over thousands of years and continues to influence art and architecture in Mexico and the southern United States.

It’s something to keep in the back of your mind the next time the subject of your corporate culture comes up. Why? Because your employees are not the Mayas. And your organization doesn’t have a culture.

While what your company does may feel very important, you didn’t create a doomsday clock or invent a unique approach to understanding the constellations. You make industrial-sized foodservice equipment. You’re part of the defense industry and process oceans of data for the federal government. Or maybe you’re a large chain of hospitals and employ tens of thousands of people. That’s great. Good for you. Someday, a consultant or HBS professor will write a case study about you. But your workforce—from the people who sort incoming mail to the leaders who sit on the board—aren’t participating in a culture. They have individual attitudes, beliefs, and principles that sometimes, but not always, coalesce into a sentiment that helps drive revenue and profit.

That’s it. There is no culture. Your company’s employees are simply too diverse to share enough convictions to constitute a culture.

Now, some of you will say, “You get a bunch of people in the room, and culture happens.” No, it doesn’t. You get a bunch of people in the room who are paid to be there, and maybe you have a like-minded group of people—or maybe you have anxiety and chaos. A culture of chaos?

Unfortunately, consultants and leadership gurus beg to differ—they offer a “cultural model” for success based on an amorphous concept called “fit.” They try to convince you that anthropological forces that you don’t quite understand will lead to better hires, stronger engagement, and higher profitability. But the concept of cultural fit is just as manufactured and manipulated as popular culture. One minute, Beyoncé is on top of the world. The next minute, it’s Lady Gaga. Before you know it, you are wondering when your daughters stopped loving the Jonas Brothers and fell in love with Justin Bieber. And who the hell is Rebecca Black and why is everyone singing (and giggling) about Friday?

Shared preferences, value structures, and ideas can sometimes be important, but the secret to operating an effective HR department is to know that culture, something that doesn’t exist in business, isn’t a key differentiator to success even it were to exist. We have a hundred years’ worth of data to show that superior products and services, combined with clever marketing techniques, drive success. Regrettably, investments in innovation and marketing are unrealistic for most companies because they’re expensive and time-consuming. Organizational consultants see the financial constraints in your budget, so they take a new route and try to sell you on the idea that culture is the Holy Grail to improving market share and reducing labor costs.

That’s just garbage.

Everyone rolls out Zappos as an example of a positive culture affecting growth and revenue; however, financial statements related to Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos reveal razor-thin profit margins and higher-than-average general and administrative expenses. Zappos also spends a tremendous amount on marketing and advertising, demonstrating that an investment in a company’s so-called culture isn’t really what leads to brand awareness, recall, and recognition.

And for every Zappos out there, there is another workplace that doesn’t shut down for a periodic afternoon of laser tag—instead, it employs people who may or may not share values or ideals but all of whom work together to foster a climate of inclusion and innovation within their organization. The press doesn’t cover these companies, naturally, because this is neither fun nor sexy—it’s just good old-fashioned business sense.

When you focus on culture, you are not focused on what matters. Stop trying to upsell the immeasurable and irrelevant importance of feelings and fun as a unique value proposition. Most employees are a good fit and work hard without Taco Tuesdays. They value an environment of performance and accountability. In fact, engagement scores are higher when leaders go out of their way to recognize contributions in the company, weed out disruptive and unproductive workers, and fairly compensate everyone else. Expecting ethical behavior and paying employees well doesn’t fall under the bucket of culture. It’s the right thing to do. Full stop.

Besides, any sort of effort to manufacture a distinctive work environment will come across as clueless, paternalistic, and condescending. You insult your employees when you prescribe a companywide scavenger hunt to bolster plummeting morale, and you insult your shareholders and board members when you tout your company as “embodying a culture of excellence and innovation.”

Of course you have a culture of excellence—if you don’t, you should be fired as a leader.

Your directors and shareholders want your leadership team to be ethical, productive, and profitable. They want financial results. They don’t give a rip if your company is a fun place to work, and they don’t really want to sponsor a softball team or pay for pizza and wings unless there is a direct link to revenue generation and increased profit margins.

The value proposition of culture doesn’t mesh with the reality of those of us who understand capitalism and the necessities of global corporate management. Do good work. Treat people well. Pay them fairly. Keep your leadership out of jail. If you want culture, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the meantime, let’s get back to work before the world ends in 2012 just like the Mayas predicted.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.