Why Company Culture is Overrated

Business Coaching

Culture matters, according to the voluminous literature on the topic, because it has three powerful contributions to make.

First, it tells you who you are at work. If you’re in Patagonia, you’d rather be surfing. You work in beautiful Oxnard, California, and your on-boarding consists of a day-long beach party where you’re gifted the CEO’s autobiography—Let y People go Surfing—and where your first meeting takes place around a campfire. It means something to say that you work for Deloitte, or for Apple or for Chick-fil-A—and this meaning says something about you, something that locates you and differentiates you—something that defines your tribe.

Second, culture has come to be how we choose to explain success. When Tesla’s stock was on the rise in the early part of 2017, it wasn’t because people were finally getting the electric cars they’d paid deposits for the year earlier—they weren’t. Rather, it was because Elon Musk had created a culture of cool, a place where you couldn’t even see the cutting edge because it was so far behind you.

Third, culture is now a watchword for where we want our company to go. Almost overnight, a big part of the job description of senior corporate leader has become to create a specific sort of culture—a culture of “performance,” or a culture of “feedback,” or a culture of “inclusion” or a culture of “innovation” to shape the direction of the company they lead by infusing it with particular traits that govern how people behave.

As a team leader, you are going to be told, repeatedly, that you must take stock of all this because you are responsible for embodying your company’s culture, and for building a team that adheres to these cultural norms.

All of which is fine, right up to the point where you start to wonder, what, precisely you are being held responsible for. Read Fortune’s list of the “Best Companies to Work For” and you’ll be struck by the fact that a very small percentage of what’s written about your company is in your job description. Having an on-site daycare facility, giving employees 20% of their time to pursue their own interests, offering large rewards for referring a new hire and building solar panels on the roof are all admirable initiatives, yet none of them are within your control. They are commitments made by others. They are off in some other place, far from the day-to-day projects and deadlines, the ongoing actions and interactions, that actually comprise your world of work.

This is the first LIE we’ll need to expose: people care which company they work for.

Recently the ADP Research Institute conducted a 19-country study on the nature of engagement at work—what drives it, and what it drives.

1) Virtually all work is, in fact, teamwork. In companies with over 150 employees, 82% of people work on teams, and 72% work on more than one team. Even in small companies, 68% of those in small companies report working on a team and 49% say they work on more than one team.

2) We know that if you do happen to work on a team, you are twice as likely to score high on key engagement items, and this trend linking engagement to teams extends to multiple teams. In fact, the most engaged group of workers across the working world are those who work on five distinct teams.

3) Those team members who said they trusted their team leader were 12 times more likely to engage fully at work.

The good news in all of this for you, the team leader, is that what people care most about at work is within your control. You might not be able to weigh in on your company’s parental-leave policy, or of the quality of its cafeteria, but you can build a healthy team—you can set clear expectations for people, or not; you can position each person to plat to his or her strengths, or not; you can praise the team for excellent work, or not; you can help people grow their careers, or not. And you can, over time, build trust with your people, or not. Of course, the “always-on” nature of your daily work, attending to each of these is challenging, but at least they are indeed part of your daily work.

The bad news for you is that your company, most likely, looks past this. So, while you’re doing your best to create these experiences for your people, your company may not be holding your fellow team leaders accountable for doing the same on their teams. Companies almost universally miss the importance of teams.

Our overemphasis on culture leads companies to remove responsibility from where it resides–with team leaders—and instead to focus on generalities.

You know your company does not have a uniform culture. If there is something distinct about your company’s culture then it is immeasurable, that the total score of your company’s employee engagement survey is simply the clumping together of lots of highly varied team-level surveys, and those clumps mask what really matters. You know that when a CEO sets out to build a great company, all she can do—and it’s a lot—is to strive to build more and more teams like her company’s best teams.

Your role as a team leader is the most important role in any company.

And who your company chooses to make the team leader is the most important decision it ever makes.

You have, by far, the greatest influence on the distinctive local experience of your team. This is a weighty responsibility, but at least it’s yours.

And when you’re next looking to join a company, don’t bother asking if it has great culture. No one can tell you that in any real way.

Instead, ask what it does to build great teams.

Marcus Buckingham

Best selling Author; Global Researcher

Marcus Buckingham is a global researcher, thought leader and leading expert on talent, focused on unlocking people’s strengths, increasing their performance and pioneering the future of how people work. A former senior researcher at Gallup Organization, he now guides the vision of ADP Research Institute as Head of People + Performance. He is the author of nine books, including First Break All the Rules, and Now Discover Your Strengths, two of the best-selling business books of all time. His latest release—Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World —takes an in-depth look at the lies that pervade our workplaces and the core truths that will help us change it for the better.