Deep business culture eats shallow corporate culture

I’ve been involved in a conversation with Adam Pisoni and a group of like-minded people about the rising tide of interest around the need for a new way of work (see There’s something in the air…). It’s led me to reconsider some of the factors that surround organizational change. And in particular, and more fundamentally, a change in the ethos of work itself.

I believe that one of the changes that we are seeing — and perhaps only the very beginning of the change — is how companies are not private worlds any more. In the 20th century a company like IBM or 3M or Ford may have built up a distinctive corporate culture, and they might have thought that was a good thing. Even today, people are endlessly discussing how to ‘create’ a corporate culture, as if that can be done, like baking a cake, or designing a phone. Maybe we should put aside the question of whether ‘creating a business culture’ can be done, and ask a different question: can we create a larger and shared culture of work that subsumes organizational culture, and in a sense, replaces it?

My sense is that that turnover is so high in most organizations that the distinctiveness of corporate cultures is decreasing, and there is little reason to believe that this trend will slow in the near term. And, just as importantly, there are demographic changes at work in the workforce, as Gen Xers and Millennials displace Boomers, so that new societal norms are permeating the business context, already, and swamping the 20th century, Boomer-centric culture of most established businesses.

Imagine a time in the near future where organizational culture becomes ever more thin, as we switch to a new business ethos, a deeper one than any company — however large — can engender.

One of the primary motivations for this shift is the decreasing social contract between the company and the employee. We’re in a time when everyone is acknowledging the inutility of the false loyalties of business. The company wants loyal employees, but treats them as expendable in a downturn. Employees say they are committed to the company’s five year plan, but in secret disbelieve, and plan to take other work as soon as something better comes along. In such a climate, individuals are unlikely to take on the cultural trappings of an organization when they have little expectation of long-term employment, and companies have small incentives to grow their staff, or invest in their futures.

And, at the same time, people are increasingly likely to affiliate with others who share aspirations for personal development, and a shared belief that the most central goals have to be striving for mastery in your work, the autonomy to pursue and apply mastery, and gaining the regard of those that you respect. And those principles transcend any specific job or company, and the network of connections that encompasses those that we respect reaches past the walls of the business.

In this light, the re-engagement of the workforce is not likely to arise by management inducements to refocus workers’ attention on the company’s goals, at least not at first. We will first have to agree — as individuals, leaders, and organizations — that each person must re-engage with their own work. The designer with design, the marketer with the discipline of marketing, and the engineer with her engines. The connection between each person and their calling has to be primary, or there will be no real engagement with the company’s goals, anyway. This is not disloyalty to the company, but the acceptance of a higher loyalty to the new ethos of work, where our affiliation is to our own work and our network of respected others, which may — at least in part — overlap with those we work with.

Even today professionals are unlikely to take a job at a company that does not explicitly commit to the three elements of the new ethos of work: mastery, autonomy, and the regard of those you respect. And as more individuals and companies build upon those pillars, we are each of us joining a broader and deeper culture, one that becomes more important than the smaller and narrower culture of organizations. And by that, we are all better off.