Culture Porn: I Know It When I See It

NSFWWe’ve fetishized the pursuit of a great work culture. Workplace pundits, organizational consultants and HR professionals have joined together, en masse, and become excessively devoted to the concept of defining, building, fixing and dissecting something that is ultimately amorphous, elusive and perhaps undefinable.

No…this is not yet another Amazon post; there have been plenty of articles written since the original ran in the New York Times. Just this morning I read an article on Fast Company entitled “Amazon’s No Outlier: The Science Behind Broken Work Cultures.” The authors recently conducted some research for a forthcoming book and found that of all the unique reasons that we (humans) do most anything there are 6 primary motives that drive our actions:

  • Play
  • Purpose
  • Potential
  • Emotional pressure
  • Economic pressure
  • Inertia

They pointed out that in organizations the first three can lead to growth, innovation and engagement; the latter three can derail everything. (Their book, Primed to Perform, is coming out in October).

The authors sum it up as such:

“Until now, we have mistaken symptoms of culture, like perks and work hours, for culture itself.

Armed with a better understanding of how culture drives performance, Amazon, Netflix and

every organization in between can start to design systems and processes that align with the

actual work employees perform—not with the indirect motives that can drag both down together.”

 

Discussions about workplace culture always make me think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964): “I know it when I see it.”

It’s nebulous and ephemeral isn’t it? All the HR leaders, Recruitment Marketers, and Culture Branding experts putting pen to paper are trying to describe something that’s, well, hard to describe. Or, at the very least, is subject to varying interpretations. For while we seem to be developing an understanding of what culture is and what culture isn’t, there are still many who decide that having Casual Fridays and flex scheduling (“you can choose 8 to 5 or 9 to 6 or even 7:30 to 4:30!”) is culture.

Once upon a time I worked in a dystopian, yet sadly all too real, workplace that had, you guessed it, Casual Fridays and flex scheduling. The majority of the folks in the C-Suite (so freaking far removed from the day to day they had no clue whatsoever) believed they had cracked the culture code. “We’re fun! We wear jeans on Friday! One time we had pizza!! People can work from 7:30 to 4:30!!!!! Well, not 7:35 to 4:35 mind you, but we’re flexible!!!”

The-powers-that-be described and branded the organizational culture with an utter disdain for reality; they were living in a well-lit rom-com with sunshine and champagne while employees were inhabiting a dungeon complete with whips, chains and Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.

Robert in Sales and Melanie in IT didn’t buy any of it.

They  knew it when they saw it.

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