“I heard Apple provides employees a dog sitting service. We are going to start this practice in order to keep our good employees”.

“If I create a culture like Apple’s, I should get the same level of innovation”.

Over the last several years, I have heard these quotes along with some variation of the following “epiphanies”: (a) Apple’s culture is almost perfect and should be emulated whenever possible; (b) Company culture is extremely important to business success; and (c) The “right” culture is one with high levels of “engagement”.

Watching people discuss organizational culture like some eye-opening experience or newfound nugget of knowledge makes me certain we have forgotten the culture, values and motivation research from the past 100 years.

The following are four universal truths and lessons that come out of this research – they have always been true, but apparently people have not been listening (or reading). You may have heard some variation of a few of these, but doubtful you have heard them all.

  1. Culture flows from the top. Regardless of your Mission Statements, Philosophies, and Truths, employees look to their boss to see what s/he cares about, which leads directly to what is followed and (sometimes more importantly) what is ignored. This is a tiered process with each subsequent leader (a) working in ways that please those above (at least when the boss is looking) and (b) tweaking the interpretation to fit their own style and culture when managing those below. Lesson: This is why using assessments to measure culture and then to hire people who at least care about 1-2 core cultural attributes is so important (and tied to success).
  2. You can’t fake culture. Well, you can fake it a bit when you think about it, but reputation/personality by default, is you. Further, “being you” (good or bad) is especially true when you feel stress and pressure (i.e., every day in the work place) or are put into novel situations or situations of uncertainty (e.g., economic downturn, upset customers, etc.). Lesson: Employees follow those they trust. The quickest way to lose trust is to say one thing and do another. While you likely consciously try to say “the right thing” (e.g., be like Steve Jobs), unconsciously, you will do what you do. So, go ahead, be yourself, be realistic about yourself, and do not make excuses — it is part of being a leader.
  3. Culture variables are tough to define. The solution I keep seeing is go into a room, light a candle, turn off the lights, meditate, and write down your thoughts. This does not work because most values are unconscious/unknown and those that are conscious are difficult to describe. Lesson: Defining your (personal and then company) culture in a few think sessions will lead to another meaningless list on the wall. Instead, like we do with our clients, actually measure (with analytics and measures) values and culture concerns and put them up against the stated words on the wall – powerful understanding and clear direction will follow.
  4. There is no “right” culture. I heard two consultants giving a public talk where they said, “The best company culture is an engaged culture, where employees get a voice in shaping direction”. The problem is that ideals (engaged employees) and activities (giving them the right to help make decisions) are not mutually inclusive. The research is clear: 30 percent of employees want this right, 30 percent of them want it, but only when the organization asks them to do something they do not want to do, and 30 percent actually do NOT want this right and it has NOTHING to do with engagement. In other words, emulating Apple will not lead to performance. Lesson: The only “right” thing you should worry about is the right business strategy/product that the consumer wants/needs. If you have a consistent company culture, the work will be performed consistently. My best example of this is a client who has a “shut your mouth and do as you’re told” culture. Through hiring, training, developing, quitting and firing they have found employees who love the culture and are engaged. Their performance is the highest and turnover the lowest in the industry. As I always tell them, “It is your culture and your company … do what you want … I wouldn’t want to work here … but we will find you people who do.” That is the point, isn’t it?