Discover more from The Mmm...Letter
Welcome to Corptopia!
Our Food is Free, Our People Are Not
The year is 2034 and every space is a safe space. Every place to work is “a great place to work…,” and nothing bad happens because we live in a post-exclusive society where everyone is equal and accepted for who they are, and we’re all family here, or else.
If internal policy initiatives actually achieved their goals, we’d be living in that part-dystopic realism and part-extreme corporate bland-washed workscape I visualized above. Thankfully, it will never bear fruit because of the relationship between how often a company promises a great work experience, and how often that company delivers on that experience — and you guessed it, it’s inverted.
As with most promises, the more emphatically delivered, the less likely to bear fruit. The over-eagerness to please triggers our bs-detectors, that’s natural. And organizations commit this on a massive scale. Many of these efforts come off as artless and patronizing.
A company treats its culture-mission like a marketing effort aimed internally at converting prospective employees into evangelists and long-term hires into dependents.
I spoke with a friend who left her role at an up-and-coming SaaS company. In that temple, they prayed to such platitudes as “be your authentic self” and chanted the mantras of “we accept all people, come as you are.” As the story goes, she felt a strong schism between that which the company promised and the reality of the clergy who played in the sandboxes of nepotism, office politics, and back-door dealings.
I asked her point-blank, would you rather work for an organization that is true to their word and whose values you find somewhat disagreeable, or an organization with lofty ideals that fails to deliver on its promises?
Her answer failed to surprise me, like myself, she prefers the organization that keeps the promises it makes. At least you know what you get, and you can’t get upset. It’s like any other system of law, if rules apply differently to different people then the game is inequitable, and at some point, unplayable.
If employees prefer a system they can trust that remains consistent with its values, what inspires management to promise the stars and land on Wyoming? Three components drive this sort of managerial nonsense.
Wheeling & Dealing
First and foremost, some capitalists operate exclusively in bait-and-switch mode. They perceive winning as taking advantage of the person to whom they sell.
This is not true of all sales people, in fact the only salespeople worth dealing with are those that serve the customer and believe that both parties must walk away better off.
But some simply get off on the thrill of a high-pressure situation in which coercion and manipulation are requisite ingredients to a successful barter. And when those people get lucky enough and find themselves running an organization of several hundred or even thousands of people, acquiring talent becomes yet another form of the same game they’ve always played.
These entrepreneurs continue the wheeling-dealing tactics that brought them there, and that means over-promising to employees while accepting the reality of constant turnover (my friend left in less than a year).
These same wheelers then justify the burn rate through self-aggrandizing rose-tinted storytelling, lionizing how tough their industry is and how only the strong survive in the start-up mattress industry (or whatever…).
When these people run a company or manage a division, we get what we get.
The second greatest driver of corporate culture-making is high-level fear-of-missing-out.
When every blog and newspaper talks about equality, equity, diversity, inclusivity, holding hands and Kumbaya, someone in the PR department realizes they are missing out on an opportunity.
If only they launched this diversity initiative or they promised this, that, and the other, they might get some media attention too.
And then corporate cultural restructuring has little to do with changing the behaviors of leadership, and everything to do with launching a committee, deploying some tactical make-work project with no tangible targets.
As long as there is an event the organization can turn into a press release, then their culture goals are simply another metric by which they measure their marketing success and brand power.
Meanwhile, the employee looking forward to the fruits of these labors won’t hold their breath for too long. They’ve been through enough seminars, seen enough speakers, read enough email sent out to the company newsletter, and witnessed more than enough performative plays during their All-Hands meetings — plenty of lip service paid to things that never come to pass.
And third, management doesn’t know how to get uncomfortable and do the work.
It’s not enough to issue some policy statement and say voila, now you can be yourself, now you can come to work as you wish, now we will hear your voice.
The reason that change management is its own industry is because once behaviors take root inside an organization, they are exceptionally difficult to weed out.
It’s far easier to talk around the difficult things rather than deal with them. While you and your executives may aim high, your targets are far below what employees expect.
What do you do if you find yourself at the helm of an organization attempting to foster a culture that retains its top talent?
Growing fast is incompatible with meticulously hiring those individuals who promise to fulfill your cultural mandate: it’s impossible to both move fast and hire right.
A quote I heard from Kris Cordle on The Knowledge Project applies, “hire slow, fire fast.” A culture is defined by its rules, and you must enforce those rules or the definition of the culture erodes.
If you say you are diverse, and your managers continue to hire people who look like them and represent their viewpoints, you must take action.
If you say you allow people to work the way they want to work, and you discover subordinates punishing idiosyncratic behavior, you must take action.
The rules are the promises you make to your employees, if you ignore them, so will your employees.
The key takeaway is this: don’t make a promise you refuse to keep. If you prefer to have a meritocracy or simply an organization bullet-focused on delivering value, live up to that.
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to be diverse, you don’t have to be equitable, you don’t have to be green, but you have to be true and willing to face truth.
And what’s curious about organizations that stay true to their word, is that more often than not, they are the same ones that attract more talent, retain top people, and truly change for the better.
Because if you end up doing everything you say you will, you’re liable to stay awful quiet…
This is a reprint of an article of the same name, originally published at Hey World! on March 16, 2021