This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
If you’ve been plugged into the entrepreneurial world at all in the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard people describe how they want all their employees to “live and breathe” the company culture. The metaphor here is designed to imply a deep commitment to that culture -- usually defined as its values, character and priorities.
It's a commitment so deep that it can no longer be distinguished from employees' own individual values, character and priorities.
It’s also an interesting vision, and one that certainly has its merits: When all your employees are so deeply committed to the company, they’ll be willing to work harder for their shared goals and more likely to work together. They’ll also contribute more positively to the overall environment, creating an accelerating feedback loop that makes the culture even stronger.
However,a “living and breathing” company culture takes the idea of culture to an extreme that yields more than a handful of downsides, and the only reason the concept exists is because of our arguably temporary obsession with the importance of company culture.
The rise of company culture
Organizational culture has been a concept in business and management since at least the 1970s, but it’s only recently that “corporate culture” has become a buzzword. You could argue that this is so because more business leaders are discovering the true objective value of a positive company culture; I’d argue, however, that it’s something closer to a fad.
Company culture started to accelerate in popularity once people started realizing that many tech startups in the Silicon Valley region -- which turned into multi-billion-dollar juggernauts -- all had surprising cultural features in common that broke from traditional office environments.
Obscure furniture, casual dress codes and a youthful energy were and still are stereotypically common features in this context, and they fuel a false association: Specifically, both culture and financial success differentiate these companies, so surely the two factors must be connected.
The end result is a still-growing obsession with creating a unique and “modern” corporate culture -- one that employees must “live and breathe” to allow for that culture's full benefits.
How company culture can go too far
This illustration shouldn’t convince you that corporate culture is bad or unnecessary; in fact, I’d still argue that it’s critical for a business’s success. But, we should be careful not to overestimate culture’s benefits, and avoid shoving it down workers’ throats.
Company culture can go too far, in at least the following ways:
- Homogeneity. Some of the best ideas in the world are the ones you didn’t see coming. They come from outside sources and outside perspectives, or arise from uncomfortable situations. Accordingly, having a diverse environment, with many different minds and perspectives, is important to a business’s survival. Being too rigid and too serious about your company culture encourages a kind of homogeneity; if all your employees think and act alike, they’ll all solve problems the same way, which will limit your growth and put you at risk for bigger problems down the road.
- Stress and pressure. Using the phrase “living and breathing” company culture implies that working for this company is as important as life itself. While some people thrive in high-pressure environments, chronic stress isn’t good for anybody. If you make your workers feel like nothing matters except their work, eventually they will begin to suffer lower morale and display lowered productivity.
- Polarization. Approaching company culture with this extreme level will also polarize your newest hires and job candidates. It’s true that you’ll naturally attract some people who already fall in line with your company values, but you’ll also scare away some serious talent who may differ with you on a handful of key points. Is that scenario really worth it?
- Misplaced values. Don’t forget, this is still a business, and your bottom line is profitability. Company culture is a useful way to make your workers happier and more productive, but the “living and breathing” angle can sometimes interfere with that vision. For example, if an employee’s deviation from your cultural norms ends up earning better results for your business, you shouldn’t complain or reprimand the employee.
- Cult vibes. Finally, to a more subjective point: Enforcing your company culture too strictly or seriously gives off some serious cult vibes. This is off-putting to employees, clients and customers alike -- so try not to turn your brand into a corporate brainwashing scheme.
Finding the right balance
Remember, company culture is still important, and your employees should fit, to some degree, into that culture. The key is to find the balance between nurturing that culture and mandating it. It’s different for every business; depending on your size, your niche and your personal preferences, you may end up settling on one end of the spectrum or the other.
There isn’t a single right answer, but you owe it to your staff and the future of your business to give it some serious analysis.