Organization Culture is a Choice of Candor for Everyone in Business and at Work


In his New York Times Op / Ed piece yesterday, Dan Lyons, author of Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble (which I also subsequently read yesterday, and which I’m still processing), quoted a section of a recent Jeff Bezos letter to shareholders about Amazon’s culture:

A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one – just that it’s ours – and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful.

Lyons castigates Bezos for his unapologetic stance on his rather tough company culture, making his employees disposable widgets rather than talented professionals, e.g. real people with feelings – however, Lyons does give Bezos credit for his candor about Amazon’s challenging culture.

Candor about culture is the operative concept here. I started my HR career in a downsizing corporate culture for a military contractor over 25 years ago, working first in employee communications / press relations, where we eventually laid off hundreds of employees a month for several years (eventually, including me) due to cancelled Department of Defense contracts.  My boss was candid with me from the beginning. He had a rather unappetizing way of searing the concept of candor into my brain.  “Don’t frost the turd,” he’s instruct me.  “Call the turd a turd. We’re dealing with adults here, and they deserve to hear the truth.”  And that’s what we did. It was hard, but for the vast majority of my tenure there, it was authentic. We practiced compassion during the layoff discussions. We had a Career Transition Center. We helped them with their CVs and their job applications.  No frosting.

Where I see organizations miss the boat on culture is to attempt to guile employees and prospective employees with frosting – and even worse, when the frosting is frothed up and served up as a substitute for the culture.  You can’t pay the rent with free candy; and calling employment termination a “graduation” is frosting overdose.

Clearly, frosting doesn’t hold up well in the recruitment and retention of top talent. Simply put, word quickly gets around, thanks to the ever-evolving speed of communications technology – evidenced, for example, by the speed of purchasing Lyons’ book digitally yesterday, and reading the book in its entirety that same day.

Every organization has its strengths, and its turds. The great organizations have a minimum of turds.

As professional adults on both sides of the hiring table, we all have choices:

  • As hiring authorities, we can with integrity lay out the organizational strengths and the challenges (turds) authentically, so top talent can make an informed choice –  there’s nothing more mutually empowering;
  • As prospective team members, we can as adults ask the right questions to confirm or deny whether the prospective organization is a match. And while it can be hard to say no to an job opportunity, exercising informed choice is ultimately an act of both intellectual and emotional intelligence – the ultimate act of professional autonomy. Consequently – if we say yes to a potential organization mismatch, with a potential majority of turds, frosted and unfrosted – the decision – and the risk / reward learning experience – is entirely ours as the prospective candidate – we are all adults.

How will you make the choice of organization culture candor on both sides of the hiring table, in business and at work?

Proving idea

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