The Destroyer of Cultures

Jul 19, 2012

“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.

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