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Randall Koutnik
Randall Koutnik

Posted on • Originally published at rkoutnik.com on

The Corporate Culture Gap

I was involved in a recent chat conversation around the concept of “Culture Buddies.” The idea is to help onboard new employees by having a current employee assigned to them with the specific task of helping the new employee acclimate to the company’s culture.

I had a direct and immediate dislike of the idea.

(Note: this is different from finding a trusted friend at a company to help you navigate the sticky parts - something I strongly recommend).

The fact is, virtually every software company has a significant gap between culture-as-imagined and culture-as-practiced. For example, many companies claim to “hire the best” but still pay below-market. However, pointing out this contradiction is not a great way to further your career.

Now let’s imagine a corporate Culture Buddies program. The type of person who’d be selected to be a “Culture Buddy” is likely someone who will present culture-as-imagined even when it does not line up with culture-as-practiced. The company wants to present culture-as-imagined to new hires. When I start a new job, I’m looking for the opposite - I want to know what the exceptions to the stated culture are so I don’t end up running face-first into them (which I’ve done many times in my career).

Often the difference between culture-as-imagined (CAI) and culture-as-practiced (CAP) isn’t visible to those higher up, as those lower down smooth over issues to preserve the image.If your company has a significant gap between CAI and CAP, then a buddy system designed by those very same higher-ups won’t help you. You have bigger problems. Oh, and your company definitely has a significant gap. Basically everyone does.

So what should we do?

The Corporate Culture Gap

A company needs a goal. Without a goal, you can’t have alignment - there isn’t anything to align towards. Without alignment, you can’t build trust, and without trust, you’re lost in a hopeless maze of micromanaging.

So you need a goal. What makes for a good goal is a bit out of the scope of this discussion. As the leader of a company, you need to:Make sure everyone knows the goal of the company (so repeat it whenever you can!)Make sure everyone knows their part of the goal

The most egregious splits between CAI and CAP I’ve seen were because there was a stated goal (or worse, multiple stated goals) and it was abundantly clear to those paying attention that the actions of the company (and the orgs within the company) were not in alignment with the goal. This is called the Corporate Culture Gap. Speaking up about actions not being aligned with stated goals results in being labeled “not a culture fit”. This label does significant harm to your career, and can often result in termination.

Some people just don’t care about the culture gap. They just go into work, move some tickets from left to right, and go home. Others are culture cheerleaders. They focus just on CAI and ignore/justify the difference. Some people just want to be a follower (and that’s ok!). Finally, there are people who care deeply about key pieces of culture-as-imagined. Most likely, the gap impacts them directly. (CAI: “We Value Diversity”, CAP: “We Underpay Everyone Who’s Not A White Dude”). For the group that cares deeply, there are those that speak up, and those that pretend to be cheerleaders. In any company with a non-trivial gap, those that speak up are not appreciated. Those that pretend can end up being effective, if miserable.

To put it simply, the cruel irony of company culture is that you can only speak up to say “This is a psychologically unsafe environment” in a safe environment.

So, I started this section by talking about goals. What’s the goal of our culture buddy program?

As a new employee, my goal is to learn as much about CAP as possible so that I can be effective within the system. I won’t trust a buddy given to me by the company, because I’m looking to find the parts of the company’s culture that it can’t (or won’t) see.

Small Gaps

If there isn’t a significant culture gap, then that’s awesome! Any engineer who’s had a few jobs has been burned by this gap enough that they’ll need some really solid proof that the company means what it says. Personally, I’ll write off anyone assigned as a cheerleader.

In this small-gap case, new employees take some time to adjust, but get there eventually. This happened to pretty much everyone who joined Netflix. There’d be an initial period where they’d be thinking “you don’t actually mean you let engineers do what they want” but as newcomers tested and experimented, they’d realize that yes, for the most part, Netflix lived up to its culture. (Was there a gap? Certainly. But it’s the smallest gap I’ve seen and management was open about times when the culture failed.)

So in the small-gap case, from management’s perspective, a culture buddy may help things along and get the new employee adjusted a bit faster. Though not that much faster, because in the small-gap case, everyone’s living the culture anyway so a specific person may not be that helpful.

In the large-gap case, on the other hand…

Large Gaps

If you’re a manager at a large-gap company and are aware of (and dislike) the gap, then the goal is to build a small-gap team. An onboarding buddy will be enormously helpful here to help the new employee guide the rough waters that would result in the cultural mismatch between a small-gap, goal-driven team and the wider, large-gap company. However, this’d be a pretty high-touch situation, for obvious reasons.

If you’re a manager/leader at a large-gap company and either unaware of the gap (or aware and don’t care, which is the same thing), then the purpose of a culture buddy system is a little more vague. I find it a bit more difficult to write about this situation without just getting all cynical everywhere.

An Example Gap

Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate the difference between Culture As Imagined and Culture As Practiced: Feedback.

Culture-as-imagined (CAI), every company ever says that feedback is important. Feedback becomes a Key Cultural Value, companies offer classes on effective feedback, managers talk about how valuable feedback was to them, etc, etc. This looks great until someone actually gives constructive feedback. Suddenly, the culture gap becomes very visible.

Some managers treat feedback as confusion, and instead of responding to the feedback, they keep on explaining, as if it was abundantly clear how they were right. Feedback was something tossed into a void. In this case, employees learn to shut up and nod. Worse, these managers think they’re doing a great job! After all, if they were doing a bad job, someone would say something. Other managers start screaming fits whenever they’re questioned. Heck, one place I worked, all feedback was just straight-up ignored.

Early on in my career, I would run into this cultural mismatch right off the bat. I’d see something that could be improved and give feedback - just like the culture docs said! At best it would fall by the wayside and I’d discover that the company wasn’t really interested in my feedback. At worst, I’d endure a public berating in front of all of my new teammates. Either way, I burned a lot of social capital because I followed the company’s stated values.

I can’t say I always gave feedback well - this is something I’ve improved a lot over the years, with a long way to go - but the companies set new employees up to fail. This might even be the catalyst for a culture buddy system! “Hey, new folks end up with a rough start, maybe we could help them out.” Good intentions, but the problem here isn’t the onboarding, the problem is you’re lying to your employees. Fix that, and the onboarding problem gets fixed too.

Conclusions

Any leader who wants to be a good leader (and not just “in charge”) needs to keep the corporate culture gap in mind through all of their decisions, large and small. Adding a “culture buddies” program is just a band-aid on a much larger problem. The best companies out there recognize the key to a smooth onboarding isn’t further indoctrination but building trust by being open and honest internally about how the corporate culture works in practice.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at blog@rkoutnik.com or in shorter form at https://twitter.com/rkoutnik

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