Another great post for our Company Culture theme this month from Eric Tabone, Manager, Staffing Partner at SapientNitro. Eric takes a look at the roots of a great company culture and how to find the perfect fit for you. Interested in guest blogging? E-mail taylor [at] mitx [dot] org.
In his mind, Eric Tabone is a billionaire tycoon who just works for fun. In reality, he’s a resource manager for creative talent at SapientNitro in Boston, with deep experience in project and organizational management. Having worked as Employee #3 in a previous life, Employee #90020 in his current, and a few others in between, he’s keenly interested in culture and operations at scale, the tensions in between, and how we can improve upon it all. He is constantly torn between his opposing desires to organize and to creatively break it all apart.
The article title is a quote from the movie Fight Club, arguably the most appropriate citation when analyzing capitalist organizations, second only to Jack Welch or Who Moved My Cheese?. The story is actually an interesting case study on how culture manifests within an organization – and the startling revelation of how much of our health and wellbeing lies in the hands of waiters – and makes for an apt parallel in the way we treat it, often as a kind of elephant in the room, where we quietly nod at each other in the halls, as if to say “great fight last night, your nose is looking much better, and also what’s up with the new corporate vacation policy?”.
Culture is born from a written foundation, but only borne by its human participants
Mission statements, company values, policies, processes – all constructive elements that constitute a framework from which you can build an aligned workforce. But charts and words are directional; they aren’t culture in and of themselves. No pyramid chart could ever fully dictate how an organization’s culture truly is – at least, not without having the word ‘scheme’ attached to it.
When as Fight Club is founded and grows, the basic framework is laid out: governing policies (the ‘rules of Fight Club’), standardized onboarding process (shaving heads, tests of willpower), company outings (bareknuckle fights, instigating members of the clergy), and team projects (defacing public property, explosions). But the organization itself evolves because of its members’ actions (“space monkeys”), not by words. By the time the organization supposedly reaches into the thousands, rules have been thrown out the window, and Fight Club’s culture is utterly defined by the masses; the founders have lost all control.
Culture cannot be prescribed
Unless you’re in either the military or a really good cult, if you’re going to cultivate a strong and rewarding culture, there needs to be fluidity around everyone’s ability to interpret and execute. Without that, it’s a cultural mutiny.
Remember Fight Club’s first two rules? You do not talk about Fight Club. And what do the space monkeys do? They talk about Fight Club. The labor force revolts against a prescribed, unrealistic mandate from management. From the outside, you might conclude that Fight Club’s culture was one of ironclad secrecy. But in reality, everyone disrespected the rules and treated them very flexibly, defying them like a petulant toddler who just learned the word ‘no’.
Treat organizational relationships personally and reciprocally
Ultimately, one’s relationship with their employer is a relationship like any other. After all, our legal system defines capitalist entities through the concept of ‘corporate personhood’ (for better or worse), so we might as well further anthropomorphize it: think of company culture as an analog to a human being’s personality. Companies with strong cultures typically don’t need to flaunt it. Word spreads and before you know it, Glassdoor.com is profiling Company X as the cool kid you wish you were friends with.
Similarly, a weak company culture not only can manifest as a destructive personality but can devolve into an outright abusive relationship. The Fight Club parallel here is too obvious (spoiler: it’s culture is a psychosis personified), but a colleague of mine provides a great example. Her fiancé requested vacation at work and he got pushback from his bosses who cited his having ‘used almost all of his [vacation] time’. He wasn’t going over his allotted amount for the year, he was simply using vacation time with plenty to spare. So here we have an organization that says it provides for its employees, but doesn’t actually support them through their conduct. It’s classic passive-aggressive behavior, the equivalent of a significant other saying, “sure, you can go out with your friends tonight”, promptly followed by a silent, icy, two minute-long stare.
Whenever I talk with anyone about company culture, it’s the same refrain: it’s the people that make or break a culture. If you’re starting or leading a company, definitely lay the right kind of foundation, but embrace the fact that you only have so much control over the organization’s cultural evolution. If you’re looking to join an organization, just be true to yourself and who you are before you embark on the new relationship. Just like the hunt for a friend or a soul mate, consider the right criteria, ask the right questions, and don’t be desperate if it’s not the right fit – you'll never be happy. Join the club that’s right for you.