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The Destroyer of Cultures

by Jul 19, 2012, 5:40 am ET

“You have to haggle!”

Fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian might recall the haggling scene: desperate to escape from pursuing Roman soldiers, Brian attempts to buy something to use as a disguise. The merchant, however, won’t simply sell it to him; instead the man insists that Brian haggle, forcing Brian to bargain loudly as the Romans close in.

Walking through the bazaar that is the Old City of Jerusalem, I found that Monty Python had, if anything, understated the aggressiveness of the merchants. At one point, my wife glanced at a camel leather bag. Immediately, the merchant opened with, “This bag is wonderful. Only 600 shekels.”

For reference, that’s about $150.

My wife wasn’t particularly interested, and the merchant kept insisting on haggling, much like the scene in Life of Brian. In this case, though, there were no Romans, and before long the merchant had bargained himself down to 90 shekels, or about $22. Even at that price, though, the bag wasn’t worth buying.

No matter which part of the city you might be in, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter, or Christian Quarter, merchants were loud, aggressive, and quick to haggle. You might find it frustrating, or you might view it as part of the entertainment. Either way, though, the behavior never ends. Indeed, anyone who opens a shop soon falls into the standard pattern of behavior.

This is culture in action: although the bazaar may not have an obvious corporate structure, it is still an organization. When you put people together for long enough, culture forms and is passed on to the new people who enter the organization. It doesn’t much matter whether the organization in question is a corporation or a bazaar.

Changing the behavior of a merchant in the bazaar is almost impossible, if for no other reason than each merchant sees what the others are doing and imitates them. In a business, new employees see what the existing employees are doing and imitate them. New employees also hear the history and stories about the company. In newer companies, employees might hear directly from the founders what the founder believes to be the best way to get work done. Finally, employees and managers act according to the way other companies in the area act: at one Silicon Valley technology startup, the expressed mindset was, “We’re a Silicon Valley company, therefore we work long hours.” Performance was measured almost entirely by how many hours someone was in the office, not by how productive they were, how rapidly they met their milestones, or even whether their software worked!

Thus, I’m always somewhat amazed when a manager says to me, “We have to be very careful whom we hire so that we don’t damage our culture.”

These same managers then complain that they cannot find any qualified people.

With a very few rare exceptions, the fear that someone is going to be hired and this new hire is going to wreck the culture really comes down to a few different issues that have more to do with the company than the new hire:

Let’s start with the obvious: The hiring process is flawed. A well-designed hiring process will intentionally reinforce the culture, not undermine it. Indeed, the real difficulty lies in reinforcing the specific elements of the culture that you want to strengthen, rather than reinforcing elements at random. If your hiring process is wrecking your culture, you need to carefully assess your culture and understand which aspects of it are being strengthened by your hiring process. It may not be what you think.

Fundamentally, how we hire is at least as important as who we hire: the person most people want to work with is the one in the mirror. Failing that, as more than one hiring manager has said to me, “I want to bring in people who are fun to work with.”

Now, it is important to not discount the importance of having some degree of compatibility with the people you work with. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hire people who are fun to work with, at least so long as they are competent. The problem lies in how you hire them: the process of hiring implicitly selects for people compatible with the aspects of the organizational culture that are manifest through the hiring process. Thus, a company that believes in rapid decision making will tend to hire more rapidly and expect a response more rapidly than one that believes in slow, deliberative decision making. People who like rapid decision making are likely to be frustrated by a process that drags on and on, and will be hired somewhere else.

In this case, it is not the new hires who are destroying the culture. It is the process that is causing some aspects of the culture to become overdeveloped and others to atrophy.

A second problem is that the orientation process is flawed or non-existent. Too often, employees are dumped into their jobs without taking the time to bring them up to speed on corporate values and norms. The more people being hired, the more important it is to have an orientation process that makes them feel part of the social community of the business. Strong relationships with supervisors and coworkers are amongst the best predictors of strong employee performance. Without that, you have an increasing body of unhappy employees. Either way shapes the culture of the company.

When my kids were little, they liked to watch a TV show called, “Between the Lions.” One of the segments on the show involved two Muppet lions doing a cooking program. Inevitably, after going through some complex recipe, they’d reach the instruction, “Cook for five minutes.” The lions would stare at one another for a moment and then devour the food raw. Hiring without some sort of subsequent orientation is much like preparing an elaborate meal, skipping the cooking step, and going straight to eating.

A new hire walks into a maelstrom: they are wondering if they made the right choice, learning about their job responsibilities, trying to deduce the informal social structure and communication patterns of the company, trying to understand how they fit in, get to know their coworkers, figure out what their manager expects of them, and so forth. This is not always so easy. A good orientation system helps new employees figure out how they fit and helps build connections with both other new employees and with existing employees and management. The orientation process also implicitly and explicitly passes along the culture of the company, or at least we hope it does! Of course, if the process is not well designed, it may well pass along exactly the wrong aspects of the culture.

When the orientation process is broken or missing, even the best hires may not act appropriately. They will, in fact, appear to be acting in ways contrary to the culture of the company, with all the tension and unpleasantness that this entails. The more new hires who are in this situation, the greater the potential damage to the culture. In effect, the culture splits into two subcultures, one consisting of older employees and the other consisting of newer employees. While the subsequent struggle might work out well in some cases, in most cases it ends up damaging the culture of the company as a whole.

The blame, by the way, is usually assigned to the hiring process. This, in turn, breaks the hiring process as it is seen as bringing in “flawed” hires who damage the culture.

Finally, we come to a key problem: Managers are not demonstrating the values of the culture. The behavior of the people in charge does more to determine organizational culture than the behavior of any newly hired employee, unless that person is hired into senior management. The bulk of the employees will follow the lead of their managers. However, if the manager has not been well-educated in the cultural values of the company due, for example, to a problem with the orientation process, that manager will also not provide a good example of appropriate corporate values to her team. New hires in that manager’s department will be particularly likely to act contrary to the values of the overall corporate culture: they imitate what they see their boss doing.

Cultures are strong. Just like the merchants in the bazaar, people are going to imitate what they see. It’s extremely difficult for one person or a few people to swim against that tide. If new hires really appear to be damaging your culture, it’s time to stop and figure out which issues you’re really dealing with and then address those issues.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Stephen, I think the underlying assumption is that the existing culture is functional or nourishing and not dysfunctional or toxic. My experience is that is often a faulty (if not actually dangerous) assumption to make….

    Cheers,

    Keith “Seen a Lot in My Day” Halperin

  • Bree J

    Good article but I agree with Keith – most organisations would like to change their culture in order to improve performance. Hiring new people can often be one important strategy towards achieving cultural change.

    The other problem that tends to occur is the conflict between higher organisational cultural change needs and the hiring decisions being made by middle management. People who suit the existing ‘faulty’ culture may be specifically hired by individual managers to bolster their particular self interests.

    Regards
    Bree

  • If Gen-Y were the boss

    Absolutely agree with Keith!

    But digging deeper, it is beyond just individual companies. For me it is a transitional phenomenon happening against a time when everyone has a voice given by the highly connected, transparent, and open social media. We look within for answers and less intimidated by the mainstream.

    Whereas the bigger a company grow into, the more things it struggle to control. Thus instruments like policies, procedures, systems, and recently culture, values are applied to keep the so called consistency with a hidden intention of killing the “individualism”. As it is the last thing they want to deal with.

    So when everything is simplified to a single concept of “corporate culture”. It goes sour really quickly esp. when the business guys simply want to link the “culture” and “values” to the financial numbers. They don’t really have the patience to cultivate such a long term delusion, simply change the wording and keep reading what HR drafted for them.

    When things go wrong, yeah you know who to blame: it is the HR, it is the new hires, it is the line managers…

    At the end of the day, it is the leader, the top top one. If they truly respect and appreciate individual employees as who they are, they know what to do.

    The sad reality is that at the end of the day they are hired to make the numbers…

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Breee and Gen-Y.

    -kh

  • http://www.7stepsahead.com Stephen Balzac

    Thanks for the comments and my apologies for being slow to respond. I’m currently out of the country with limited internet.

    There are several points here that should not be conflated. Fundamentally, the question of whether a culture can be damaged through the hiring process and whether the culture is nourishing or toxic are separate issues.

    A culture can be functional or dysfunctional. A functional culture is one that can obtain resources from its environment. A dysfunctional one cannot. Dysfunctional cultures either change or die. Functional cultures may become dysfunctional if the environment changes out from under them.

    Cultures can also be symbiotic or parasitic with their members. A symbiotic culture provides members with benefits that go beyond just working for a company that provides a salary. Parasitic cultures burn out members or otherwise use them up.

    Cultures do not have an objective reality. They exist in the minds of those who comprise the culture, and can be viewed as a sort of consensual reality. They are the accumulated lessons of success and perceived success over time: values, beliefs, behaviors, etc. Culture is what we do and why we do it, and the “why” is far more important than the “what.” This is an important concept: it’s not just what worked, it’s what people believed worked. Thus, if enough people believe that a rain dance brings rain, then the rain dance becomes a part of the culture. I discuss this at length in the first chapter of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” available online at http://www.7stepsahead.com/articles.html, so I won’t repeat the full analysis here.

    Because cultures are based on successes, and success is something that rarely happens 100% of the time, cultural beliefs are internmittently reinforced. This makes them very strong and extremely hard to change.

    It is also true that how we hire can be as, or more, important than who we hire. The very process of hiring will tend to reinforce various aspects of the culture. Which aspects, however, can be quite random unless careful thought is put into exactly how the process is being designed. Over time, the culture will tend to exaggerate certain aspects of itself as people will tend to hire those who are most like themselves.

    Any individual hire, however, is going to have limited ability to influence the culture. In fact, until new hires prove themselves and are accepted into the culture, their ideas are likely to be rejected because they are “not one of us.”

    Whether the culture is functional or dysfunctional, symbiotic or parasitic, it is going to be difficult to change. In fact, the more dysfunctional and/or parasitic a culture is, the harder it is to change.

    In the end, therefore, the odds are that if there is a real fear that new hires will damage the culture, you’re really looking at a different problem.

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