Culture is Both what You Do and what You Tolerate

You’ll often hear that the culture in your organization isn’t what’s contained in your mission statement or some document on your website, but rather the things that you do.

I agree with this statement. It’s extremely true. If what you say and what you do aren’t in alignment, the truth rests on the side of what you actually do. However, this doesn’t go far enough to cover what really shapes the culture of your organization.

What you do is a decent high-level measure of your culture, but the real measure is what you tolerate.

Do you tolerate a “superstar” employee being an asshole because “they’re so productive”? Tolerating assholes is part of your culture.

Do you tolerate your HR people or management team calling your employees “resources”? Dehumanizing your employees is part of your culture.

Do you look the other way or make excuses for people who make inappropriate advances on other members of your staff (or outside contractors, etc for that matter)?

Do members of your leadership support openly racist, xenophobic, etc politicians? Guess what – your culture is one that supports those things (whether you think so or not. Whether you like it or not.).

All of these things impact your culture. Some of these are obvious (even though a lot of companies will defend the “resources” one until their last breath). With some of them (like the political leanings) you can say “what people do in their own time is their own business” until you’re blue in the face, but the fact is that people don’t leave that at the door. They just hide it, and it absolutely will impact your culture – especially if they’re in a position of authority.

I’m not saying that you need to police everything your people do outside of work. I am, however, saying that you need to look for the signs that it is impacting your company’s culture – and those signs can be really difficult to spot in the early stages.

One of your biggest indications is probably going to be people in underrepresented groups either leaving in a steady stream, not joining in the first place, or going very very quiet because they know it isn’t actually safe for them there.

We often talk amongst ourselves and, after a while, you start to be able to smell trouble on the air. Things that a lot of people wouldn’t notice or just shrug off act like klaxons for us.

If you actually care about diversity and inclusion, you not only need to listen to people when they tell you there’s a problem, you need to notice when they stop talking or start leaving.

I’ll give you an example.

In one place where I worked, I made the comment that there was a really great Jamaican food truck about 15 minutes from the office that we should go to for lunch one day (one of the many great things about living in a city with a large number of different cultures in it).

One of the members of tech leadership said that he didn’t go on that street. My joking response was “what? No sense of adventure?” to which he responded “I don’t go where adventure could find me.”

When he made the initial comment, I already knew where this was going (and something about him had made my teeth itch before that, but I didn’t have any proof). The street was in a lower-middle class predominantly Black neighborhood. It wasn’t a dangerous area, but that doesn’t stop racists from showing themselves.

I’d wager most of the people that were standing around completely missed the importance of what was said in that exchange.

I learned and honed several technical skills while I worked there, but the place never really felt right on a visceral level. There was a definite clique-oriented culture, only a few women, and not that many people who visibly weren’t white (I have pale skin, so I can sort of pass. Again, ask me why I have a beard sometime).

Several years later, I found that it didn’t end with tech leadership. I was, at the time, followed on twitter by the original founder of the company. And he started making pro-Trump posts.

Just some food for thought.


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