Don’t Ignore the Contradictions In Your Culture

One of the reasons that I don’t particularly like “core values” exercises is that they bring culture up to a level that’s so high, it ends up ignoring some important contradictions inside your culture. For example, I’ve seen a lot of interesting private equity activity in the association technology space of late, and frequently I hear the leaders try to calm fears by declaring, simultaneously, that of course they are looking for relatively short-term (5-7 years) return on the investment when buying a company, but they also realize that it’s in their interest to protect the long term value and growth of the recently purchased company.

Fine. But how do you plan to manage that contradiction?

Let’s get real for a minute, here. Everyone in that company you just bought knows you’re going to sell it in 7 years. You can announce to them that you ALSO value the long term, but it seems clear that the first priority is going to be getting the company ready to sell. Short term is inherently valued MORE than long term. That means that employees, down the road, will be faced with some choice about how to respond to a situation—one path favoring long term capacity, and one path favoring short term—and you KNOW which one they will choose (short term). That’s what culture does. It clarifies what’s valued, and that drives behavior.

Now, for the record, I don’t think the leaders who declare the long/short term balance are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. They really do believe in supporting these companies in the long term. But they are not fully confronting the nuances and contradictions within their cultures and what is truly valued. If they did, they’d make a clearer call about the short-term/long-term thing. State clearly that you value the short term, because it’s obvious to all of us. And then tell me what controls you are putting in place to make sure the long-term gets ENOUGH attention. It won’t get more, and it won’t even get equal attention, but tell me how you’re managing that.

In this day and age, both your employees and your customers are now expecting you to have a much better handle on your culture. Glossing over the contradictions isn’t helping.

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