The “Great Culture” Fallacy

Culture employee engagement employee experience leadership Workplace Culture

Organizational Culture.

No doubt, it’s a hot topic among HR professionals and business leaders alike.  In a time when the competition for great talent continues to heat up, most seem to agree that having a great company culture is certainly a competitive advantage.  All other things being equal, it stands to reason that the best of the best will choose the company with a great culture over one with a “just okay” culture….and no one will choose the one with a toxic culture.

But what exactly is this “culture” we speak of?  What exactly constitutes company culture; what are the elements that comprise it, that make up what it means to work for and what it’s like to work within an organization?  And furthermore, what makes one culture toxic, while another is just okay, and others are great?

That’s where things get fuzzy.  There are many shades of gray when it comes to culture, and many elements that contribute to what it’s ultimately like to work for a particular organization.  In the wake of movements like “Me Too” we’ve certainly moved beyond the notion that arbitrary perks like free food in the office and video games in the break room make a company great to work for.  And I believe that a truly toxic culture can be fairly easily identified.  However, the real gray area is the difference between a truly great culture, and one that’s “good” or maybe “just okay.”  And sometimes those that think they are great actually fall into one of the latter categories.


Toxic Cultures 

Toxic culture is the one that’s fairly easily identifiable.  Maybe not always from the outside, but certainly once a person is immersed in it, those toxic elements tend to become more clear.  I’m talking about the places where people are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation or belief that no one will listen or care anyway.  The places where people intentionally undercut or work against each other behind one another’s backs; maybe because there’s an unhealthy sense of competition, or maybe because it’s a place that promotes results at the expense of all else, including the well-being of the people achieving those results.  It might be a place where there is no such thing as work/life balance; where it’s expected that employees give their all with relatively little given in return.  Harassment may run rampant, there may be no hope of getting ahead unless a person is a part of or embraced by the “old boys’ network,” and there’s certainly no diversity of either the makeup of the workforce or diversity of thought.


Great Cultures

On the opposite end of the spectrum from toxic cultures are the truly great ones.  These are the places that are continually recognized as desirable places to work.  These cultures may not all look exactly the same, nor should they as culture does tend to be individual and specific to a particular organization’s vision and values.  They could vary in the specifics, especially from one industry to the next.  But the common element they all typically have is a belief in really, truly looking out for the people that work there.  And that may include any or all of the following:


  • Career paths and development opportunities are available. They don’t necessarily have to be in a traditional org chart and upward direction, but the opportunities for continuous learning and embracing new opportunities is certainly there.  And there’s an overall belief in the importance of organizational development.


  • There’s a belief in investing in people, resources, and staff. Not a free-for-all, but where and when it’s needed and makes sense.


  • There’s a concerted effort to ensure that all voices are heard, that contributions come from everywhere and everyone, and that fresh ideas are always welcome. And this may include not only allowing but encouraging people to challenge old/accepted ways of doing things.


  • There’s a concerted effort to ensure that everyone feels a part of the team. “Teambuilding” and organized social events are not tailored to only one segment of the employee population (i.e. just for employees with families/kids, or just for those who like team sports, or just those who like to go to happy hour).


  • The organization in general is in tune with the changing nature of the workplace and workforce and how it can and will impact their specific company. They understand technology and changing preferences/needs of the workforce of today and the workforce of the future.


Good or “Just Okay” Cultures

And then there’s the “muddy middle.”  These are the places that on the surface can be pretty good companies to work for.  There may be many good things about them.  Generally people probably like each other and work together pretty well.  Compensation may be pretty good, at least good enough that people aren’t regularly leaving simply for more money elsewhere.  If you didn’t know any better or any differently, you’d probably think this is what a really great culture looks like.  And this is probably what a large majority of organizations actually do look like.  There’s a fair amount of good stuff.  But it just isn’t quite great.

So what makes them “not great”?

  • Technology may be outdated and/or a hindrance to real productivity


  • Teambuilding and team events happen, but they are far from inclusive and cater to the likes and preferences of certain groups. So there may be a sense of “team”… as long as you fit in.


  • There may be too much dependence on stability or maintaining the status quo, at the expense of allowing employees to grow and develop; managers may “hoard” their team members because they don’t want to have to go through the process of replacing them, and this could lead to a lack a career paths or development opportunities.


  • There may be an ongoing climate of scarcity, or a philosophy of always needing to “make do” with limited resources or always look for ways to do more with less rather than a willingness to invest where and when it makes sense. And because of this lack of resources, employees may not feel they can take care of their own needs (i.e. they are unwilling to stay home to take care of themselves when they are sick because there is “too much to do” and no one to cover).


  • On the surface, people can speak up. But they may not be truly heard, or their ideas may be dismissed because of a reliance on status quo or an unwillingness to challenge the way things have “always been done.”


  • There may be an overall lack of forward thinking. Little attention is paid to how the changing dynamics of the workforce and what the employees of the future may need or want from an employment relationship. There’s either little awareness of, or little concern about the types of benefits and working arrangements that are becoming more important, things such as remote/flexible work options, various voluntary benefits, and overall concern about wellness/well-being.  There’s too much focus on the here and now and not enough on what’s to come.



As important as company culture is, it’s also a broad, fuzzy, wide-ranging concept.  The extremes are easier to identify, but the middle ground not so much.  But I also believe that successful HR professionals and business leaders need to be able to learn to identify the good, bad, and ugly and work to improve what and where they can to remain competitive now and into the future.


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