Company Culture Is Not Just A Buzzword

If there is one thing almost universally decried about the business world, it is the prevalence of “buzzwords.” Every industry has its own buzzwords. To read the literature on the subject, all SaaS solutions are “robust and scalable.” Buzzwords are not confined to advertising, either: Most project managers have heard a colleague claim something could be done “on time and under budget.”

Social phenomena spawn their own tired phrases, too. It is hard to imagine anyone in America has not been advised what to do “in these unprecedented times.” Enough repetition can earn almost any sentiment a degree of hostility, but that does not indicate a buzzword.

So, what precisely makes a buzzword?

There is nothing wrong with any industry or profession having specialized terminology. What makes something a buzzword is this: It obscures meaning rather than clarifies it. The examples above refer nebulously to something that is something impossible to measure, quantify, or verify.

A solution may be “robust and scalable,” but that is validated by evidence.

It may be possible to be “on time and under budget,” but the proof is in the execution.

Even something that seems apparently true – or that we would like to be true – can sound inauthentic and therefore ring false when hearers realize it does not correspond to anything specific in the world of our senses. As Orwell wrote, that “gives an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Business professionals need to have finely tuned nonsense filters, and those filters are often turned up high. With that in mind, valuable concepts can also have their meanings diluted. In time, ideas of great importance may acquire a patina of suspicion through misuse and response to that misuse.

One example is company culture.

Company culture influences every activity in and around a business. Yet, just like national culture, it is often difficult to measure. This drives many leaders to conclude it is overblown and faddish. But company culture is immanent and very real, just as water is for a fish, whether the fish knows it or not.

This calls for a deeper understanding of what company culture is and what makes a culture effective.

What Company Culture Is Not

It is easy to use the term “company culture” to refer to one specific part of culture. This puts the spotlight on something that may be valuable, but misses the broader picture. It is an example of measuring something because it is easy to find, rather than because it is most relevant – one hallmark of a poor KPI.

Some misconceptions about company culture:

1. Company Culture Is Not Just Employee Benefits

Many startups tout their company culture in the effort to attract the most talented new computer science graduates. Browse their presentation and you would be forgiven for thinking company culture consists of free coffee, discount yoga classes, and foosball in the break room.

These are all aspects of culture – but make no mistake, they are small aspects.

Packages of employee benefits tailored to appeal to a small segment of the workforce at a very particular point in their career do not give a business the adaptability or resilience needed for longevity. This leaves many crucial questions unanswered, or even unasked. Thus, it cannot suffice as “culture.”

2. Company Culture Is Not Only Your Values

Certain values have become synonymous with forward-looking company culture.

Diversity & Inclusion are essential to innovation in any commercial setting. More broadly, D&I policies represent a way for businesses to participate in paving the way to equity, justice, and freedom. Although this might be central to a company’s culture, it is only one piece – a specific program for executing on your values.

Likewise, ethics and integrity can definitely be absent from a company culture. Just ask Jeffrey Skilling.

A culture of integrity lends itself to excellence in many other areas. But it is the beginning rather than the end or the whole story. Like the North Star, integrity helps you orient yourself and illuminates the path before you. But that path is sure to have many contours, and those things are part of culture as well.

Toward A Productive Understanding Of Company Culture

If company culture is not any of those things, what is it?

It has been described prosaically as “the unwritten rules” or “the way things are done,” a set of social norms everyone participates in at all times. But if we stopped here, it would be of little use. We would find ourselves back in buzzword territory, unable to quite confirm that a phenomenon exists.

On the other hand, effective company culture happens when:

  • Each individual, team, department, and division works efficiently according to its highest priorities
  • Those priorities are aligned with an overall enterprise vision for reaching goals and adding value
  • That vision derives from and reflects positive values which everyone understands and embraces

Vision without action is inert – that is where Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) come in.

The right KPIs provide for measurable progress and actionable feedback. Every time a leader selects a KPI that reports will be responsible for, that person is committing to an expression of values. Every KPI distinguishes priorities and clarifies what is most important, thereby moving organizational culture in one direction or the other.

Consider this example:

In a call center environment, a new team leader emphasizes speedy call completion and measures this as the #1 KPI for team members to focus on. After a few weeks, however, it becomes clear that the fastest calls are also the most likely to result in follow-up calls. First-call resolution declines, and so does customer satisfaction.

In effect, selecting the wrong KPI created a perverse incentive: Getting a customer off the phone two minutes earlier nearly guarantees the same customer will call again later – or perhaps get frustrated and move on to a competitor. Although the wrong KPI was chosen, watching the data allowed for a quick course correction.

Equipped with this new information, the same team leader returns with instructions to prioritize attentive customer care, leading to better first-call resolution. The average call becomes longer, which may have other repercussions. But in post-call surveys, Net Promoter Score markedly increases.

The manager has effectively made a choice: Quality customer care over speed.

This choice is a distinction that influences culture – for the individual, the team, and perhaps beyond. When KPIs are selected correctly, decisions about priorities come naturally and are congruent with the overall vision. In this way, the business culture you want is continuously reinforced.

Yes, there are trade-offs: The team above will not become known for its speed. But what you want to be known for – where you can add the most value – is also a decision. It is one that should be made proactively, in the creative space always poised between values and KPIs.

At Equal Parts, we render company culture visible and measurable, making it part of your journey of continuous improvement. To learn more, contact us.