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Bill Hatcher
August 18, 2011 | Business | Bill Hatcher

Cult and Culture

Every year, The Wall Street Journal features a contest called Winning Workplaces to highlight outstanding small companies.  When one reads profiles of the winners, the criteria for selection focus on such things as training, a hands-on work ethic, wellness programs, open book policies and sustainability.  Rarely, if ever, is the overall culture addressed.

I suppose the reason is that company culture is hard to define, harder than say that of a sports team or an orchestra where the narrowness of objective tends to attract similar personalities and correspondingly creates cultural constraints.  In a company, the diversity of disciplines, from engineering to finance to HR to marketing, attracts a corresponding diversity of personalities.  To have a fulfilling environment for this breadth of individuality, the company culture itself must be broadly defined.

We have all heard ad nauseum of companies where “We are family here.”  More often than not, that becomes euphemistic for “Your first devotion is to us.”  This is not culture but rather, cult, where only those who adhere to the tribal ethic will thrive and prosper.  Cult most often orbits about a patriarchal star—less matriarchal as women tend to subsume ego better—or a military work ethic.

Organizations that revolve around cult are more susceptible to ethical breaches as blind loyalty becomes a surrogate for a charter of principles as a foundation.   There is also usually a revolving door of employment as whatever might be defined as culture most resembles junior high where one is either in or not and, if not, relegated to insignificance in the company.

Culture, on the other hand, a priori must be inclusive.  While hierarchy is necessary to the management of an organization, that verticality must be complemented by the horizontality of culture.  While perhaps not as whimsical as a cult-driven organization, one that defaults to chain of command is equally stultifying.  An effective culture is, in many ways, independent of a management hierarchy.  It is a set of tacitly understood principles—strategic, ethical, social, philosophical—that define the scope of the organization’s activities.

If these principles—different than policies—supersede individual arbitration, the culture not only creates a fulfilling environment for a wide range of people and skills but also instills a climate of self-management where the participants feel committed to uphold the cultural values in exchange for the autonomy conveyed.  In a culture that values autonomy, a job description is a skeleton outline of goals and functions but allows creative latitude in how those goals are achieved and functions performed.  Autonomous organizations generate far more creativity than those that rely on policy and protocol as people are willing to take initiative and risks in developing new ideas, trying new approaches to old problems or building better mousetraps.

In the largest sense, autonomy fosters a sense of ownership in the overall success of the organization as one feels that her contribution makes a distinguishable difference.  More so, if hierarchal management is confined to necessity, the organization is empowered horizontally which cultivates the cross-fertilization of ideas.  Finally, if the culture rather than the hierarchy becomes the implicit raison d’être of the organization, ego tends to give way to collaboration.

Just as culture is hard to define, it is elusive to create.  Cult and hierarchy are comparatively primitive organisms where culture is the result of evolution—it can’t be created in a day.  One thing is clear, however; the seedbed of culture is trust—trust that begins with senior management to empower the whole of the organization.  That trust will then grow across the organization and synergies will bloom from there.


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