Three Counterproductive Myths About Corporate Culture

Has the office foosball table has become such a cliché that it’s distracting us from bigger work-culture issues?

Three Counterproductive Myths About Corporate Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Nan Palmero]

Just last week, Samsung announced that it’s overhauling its corporate culture, trading in a traditional, big-company atmosphere for a more startup-y vibe. It will have no shortage of views and opinions to draw on for guidance.


We’re arguably hearing more about work cultures than ever before–from what motivates employees and spurs innovation to the best ways to scale a culture as your company grows. But as useful as these conversations are, they’ve also generated a few myths that just don’t hold up, and can even wear a work culture down. Here are three of them.

Myth #1: Intrinsic Rewards Trump All

By now the backlash against the proverbial office foosball table is complete. We’re now hearing that more materially significant (if more boring) benefits such as equity and flexible work hours are getting more serious attention from the tech world, and that focusing on the purpose behind the work can be the better way to keep employees engaged.

All that may well be true, and it’s likely a smart move for cultures to respond to what modern workers actually say they want, such as more transparent communication, instead of stuffing your office full of superficial perks.

But adding in these other forms of motivation and removing some of the frillier ones doesn’t preclude you from offering one of most fundamental motivators of all: a good salary or a generous bonus. It may be out of fashion to say so, but competitive pay is still one of the surest ways to stay, well, competitive–and to keep up a culture where employees are motivated and happy.

Let’s not forget to look at the big picture–which is notably uncongenial to the younger generations of workers. It’s becoming more expensive and more difficult for millennials and gen-Xers to find a sustainable career path. On average, American workers earn less today than their counterparts 40 years ago. So monetary rewards may end up gaining more the longer that trend persists. What’s more, a pay raise or bonus is often a lot easier to advertise and implement than those softer perks are.


So yes, intrinsic rewards matter. And yes, you should take pains to build a culture where your employees feel motivated and listened to. But don’t patronize them, either–by pretending that a remote work policy or a “culture of open communication” beats a good salary.

Photo: Flickr user dennis crowley

Myth #2: A Good Work Culture Has To Be Fun

We all know the saying “work hard, play hard.” Letting your employees blow off a little steam is genuinely important, whether that’s through a company-sponsored happy hour or a team excursion. But there comes a point when a fun atmosphere becomes window dressing–something you do because “that’s what we do here,” even if it doesn’t support your employees’ motivation or productivity (and might even be detrimental to it).

“Your company culture should foster a sense of united individuality,” Jason Richmond, CEO of Culturized, tells me. “Too often we hear of companies wasting time on activities like happy hours when they should be focusing on creating a team environment that supports every employee’s personal goals.”

Encouraging your employees to hang out at the office and blow off steam is great, but if it gets in the way of meeting deadlines and doing good work, something obviously needs to change. You can cultivate a relaxed atmosphere and still set boundaries. Designating quiet areas, for instance, gives a lifeline to people looking to escape the general office noise and accomplish the tasks at hand.

And instead of Friday bar crawls, why not sponsor employees who choose to attend a speaker event or want to check out the museums in the city? “By devoting time to team-building activities beyond the confines of an office,” says Sagi Gidali, cofounder and CPO of
SaferVPN, “coworkers build solid relationships with one another, leading to a more collaborative and inspired workplace.”


But not all out-of-office activities qualify as team building, foster collaboration, or, for that matter, involve alcohol. Plus, what counts as fun is subjective, so I personally believe in letting my teams choose what they find enjoyable, rather than announcing a supposedly “fun” activity that everyone’s meant to like but might not.

Myth #3: Culture Costs More Than It Pays

It’s likely that Samsung determined it would be worth the investment in revamping its work culture, but many companies generally don’t pay much attention to theirs. Unless your business is in a rut (or heading there), it’s tough to see the connections between culture and your overall finances.

But certain behaviors, at scale, can hit the bottom line pretty hard. For example, researchers have found that when top-level managers regularly stick to their promises, company stock prices increase.

So while it’s true that the impact of culture on performance is tricky to measure, some connections are pretty easy to draw. In one recent study, 40% of employees surveyed agreed that they benefit when their own goals are in step with their company’s goals. That’s a culture question if ever there was one, and it has a direct bearing on performance–your company’s and your employees’ alike.

If we can get past some of the myths–both the widespread beliefs and unspoken assumptions–about work culture, chances are we’ll be able to see even more how much culture matters, instead of just talking about it.

About the author

Barry S. Saltzman is CEO of Saltzman Enterprise Group and Partner at Culture Measures, a business focused on turning the art of culture into a science