Culture: Do you have it? Are you in it? Are you cultured?
What does the word mean to you—honestly? What image does it immediately conjure up? A classical music concert followed by an elegant dinner? An evening of Shakespeare? A heated debate on the issues of the day? Good table manners? A special bottle of wine? Or perhaps a Petri dish populated with microbes, remembered from freshman biology?
Does the word "culture" instantly make you think about your company and its culture? Tell the truth, now, full disclosure. As much as I throw the word around during the work day—and I do—I can honestly say that my first, unaided, spontaneous articulation would not be about my company culture.
Yet the corporate world is obsessed by culture. We bless great culture for success and curse and blame bad culture or lack of culture for our failures. We hire well because of culture, and we lose our best and brightest because of culture—you get the picture.
What the hell is corporate culture, really? Is it about environment—as in fun-loving, nurturing, or cutthroat? Is it about people—as in smart, nice, or aggressive? Is it about business practices—as in ethical, questionable, or at all costs? Or, are we missing something?
When in doubt go back to a word’s origin; there's no better way to really understand a concept. Once I did this with the word "culture," my eyes were opened.
The root word for culture in Latin is colere: To cultivate land, till the soil. When you consider the context, it's more than that. Land was critical, land was sustenance. The essence of colere is the notion of tending and guarding the precious resource. So you tilled and cultivated, you tended and guarded, or you didn’t eat. Now—you might have had fun doing so, or not. And you might have helped your neighbor or not. But you knew one thing—if you didn’t take care of the land, you had nothing.
So here is my first salvo in writing about corporate culture. We mistake the platform for the veneer. We worry about the external without fully developing the internal.
We have made culture all about how we dress and where we sit and what we eat. We have reduced culture to fashion, design, and gastronomy. And we have confused motivation for foundation. Rallying me to perform better works in the short term because, really, unless I have deeply connected roots to my company and see and feel the long-term care, I’m not sure how long the rally will last. I can't help but think of those farmers of old who understood that culture is fundamental, precious, and demanding of constant care. Yes...caring, honoring, tending, guarding, cultivating, tilling—these are the words that need to drive the foundations of corporate culture, not fun and casual. Albert Camus had an interesting thought that I think makes the point well. "Without culture….society, even when perfect, is but a jungle," Camus said. How many companies have we all seen that have "perfect" veneer and no culture? Jungles.
So there you have it—my first thoughts on the idea of culture and how it fits in to today’s corporate world. More to come.
[Image: Flickr user suzy.glass]