Corporate Culture – Business Strategy and Psychology #38

Dear reader,

First up, thank you for opening this article, even though it has been five weeks since I wrote my last “weekly” article. I’d love to say that it is because I haven’t had time, but that just isn’t true. To start with I had too much time.

I don’t know if this is a universal issue, or just a personal one. I searched for articles about having too much time, and how it can cause you to be less productive, but I didn’t find much. I can only put this down to two things: Being more active makes activity a habit, which means every moment you have is taken up by something; And having less free time means the everything that you want to get done needs to be scheduled, which makes sure it happens (you are always working to a deadline).

The reason I didn’t restart writing was because I fell into the trap of thinking that I didn’t have anything to say. But I’m a big believer in “writing as thinking” – the loop of putting something down on paper/the screen, and reading it back which generates new ideas. I realized that I had to write in order to have something to say.

I’m not going to promise that I’ll publish something every week as that will mean I start to put out lower quality content just for the sake of putting something out. But I also need to make a commitment to publish regularly, to force myself to write. So I think a valuable compromise will be to continue to publish on a bi-weekly basis, writing something every two weeks with some original thought, rather than weekly cribs of my reading for that week.

So thank you again for your patience and I hope you enjoy my ramblings on culture.

Have a great week!


In This Case, 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat | Exposition Jean-M… | Flickr
In this case, Basquiat, 1983

Company Culture

When people talk about whether or not a company is good to work for, one of the first things that people talk about is the culture. Pay is one element, learning and availability of promotion, as well as brand on your CV all play important roles, but company culture is by far the most important – to the newest generation in the workforce that is. Nine out of ten millennials would take a pay cut to work somewhere with a better company culture. Even in the wider working population, 56% of employees say a strong culture is more important than salary.

Spotify is a clear winner of the culture game – they receive around 65,000 applicants per month, for only 150 places, their CEO has a 99% percent approval rating on Glassdoor, and they have grown at 43% per year between 2011 and 2020. Why does their culture work? Well, that could be a whole essay, and it is some people’s full time jobs to think about why some cultures work and others don’t. But, in a nutshell, Spotify’s culture is great because they work on their culture full time.

So culture matters to people, but what is it? One academic helpfully described company culture as “the ways we do things around here”. For me, a psychologist by training, I like to think about company culture as the personality of the company. An individual’s personality is built out of a tendency to act in a certain way – both historically and in the future. A company culture is the aggregate of decisions that employees make on a daily basis.

Culture is important to prospective employees, but maybe you can just offer big salaries instead to attract the best people? Not really. At Cargill, where I worked for a year when I was 18, I was surprised to see that the number one guiding principle is “We follow the law.” This is a remarkably low bar, but a surprisingly essential one. To see why, we need only to look at one of the most high-profile cases of culture gone wrong.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo is one of the largest banks in the world. In the early 2010s it had a reputation for being stable and trustworthy, partly off the back of their performance through the 2007/8 mortgage crisis. What went wrong was a push from management to cross-sell – a practice where you sell a new product to an existing customer. Cross selling is a valuable and very viable tactic, as the cost of selling to an existing customer is a lot lower than the cost of selling to a new customer. However, at Wells Fargo, the push to cross sell was was more intense than any cultural belief about doing the “right thing”.

What branch employees started to do was open accounts for customers without their knowledge. Customers were receiving credit cards that they didn’t sign up for, and discovering saving and checking accounts that they didn’t know about. This is illegal, and can ruin someone’s credit score if they don’t keep up payments on an account they don’t know about. This behavior was uncovered in 2011, but fines were still being levied as late as 2018, with a running total of $2.8bn.

How did culture play a role in this debacle? To understand this, we can use a model of culture created by Johnson and Scholes called the Cultural Web. According to this model, culture has eight elements: Stories, Symbols, Rituals, Power Structures, Organizational Structures, and Controls.

Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web

Each of these elements can contribute or take away from culture. As humans, stories are always incredibly important to our identities. If the stories that are told over coffee are about someone working crazy hours to finish a project with ridiculous expectations, then the culture will likely be one of long hours, whether required or not. If instead, the stories told are of the bravery of an employee saying no to their boss when asked to do something immoral, and instead phoning the ethics hotline, then behavior will follow that instead.

Likewise, symbols and routines will effect culture – opulent offices signal that cost isn’t important, a strict dress-code implies that being different isn’t valued, and having to get six signatures on a project proposal will likely mean that even when you don’t need signatures, you will aim to get the approval of a half dozen people anyway.

The next three factors in the web (power structures, organizational structure, and controls) are much more clearly related to company performance, but people don’t tend to connect theses factors to culture as frequently as the previous three. “Start-up culture” often seems to be defined by the stories, symbols and rituals rather than organizational factors – e.g. defined by casual workwear, “fun stuff” in the office, and office parties. But the power structures and organizational structures are just as important. The number of managers between the top and the bottom effects how independent the employees are, whether it is possible to stop by the founder’s office for a chat, what bonus schemes exist, and what the promotion requirements are.

Looking at these six elements, it becomes clear how hard changing culture can be. The first three are more abstract, the second three not as clearly related to culture. Looking back to Wells Fargo, there were clear issues in the power structures, where branch managers had little power and had regional head’s breathing down their necks to increase number of accounts opened, and issues with the control systems, where bonuses were payed for reaching impossible sales targets. Less obvious however are the soft issues, like the stories that were told, such as about employees who were fired for calling the ethics hotline. This kind of story creates a culture of fear and powerlessness.

Nom Nom Not Dairy

As some of you know, I currently co-run Nom Nom Not Dairy with my partner Laura. When we started the company, we thought that the company’s values were going to be very important. We didn’t just want to make money. In the most Millennial/Gen Z way possible, we wanted to do it the “right” way. So we decided on four company values which would help guide our business and marketing decisions.

We ended up picking Active, Clean, Transparent, and Human, and the values have guided how open we are with customers and clients about the eco-footprint of our products, they have guided how we interact with within the company and with clients, and they have guided our efforts to remove plastic from our supply chain. Even now, our four values are on our company homepage.

This isn’t the last thing I’m going to say on culture, I’ll continue to write as my thoughts on the topic develop.

Success in life is leaving the world better than you found it. Create something, help someone, turn up. It isn’t that difficult, but it is really important.


How we can avoid the global lobotomy. What is an acceptable opinion to have? How can you use ethical anti-design to make applications less addictive? Is a plant okay for vegans to eat if that plant eats animals? And finally, 99 more bits of advice.

I hope you have a great week, and thanks for reading.

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