It’s 2pm on a Wednesday and the Sales Manager challenges you to a friendly game of ping pong. There’s too much work to be done and everyone, including yourself, is well aware of the effect the noise has on the tech team, whose desks are within earshot of every single backhand. But you know you can’t say no or you’ll be accused of not adhering to the ‘flexible’ company culture...
It’s beyond parody at this point, but for many companies a gimmick or ‘perk’ like a ping pong table (or a bean bag chair, or a strange cult ritual known as the “morning cheer”) continues to serve as a cheap stand-in for company culture.
Whether these organizations are trying to encourage openness, flexibility, or loyalty—all of which are admirable core values for a company—the reliance on superficial gimmicks as a quick fix is not (and never was) an effective strategy for cultivating a unique culture. In many cases, these attempts backfire and produce the opposite effect: employees become unmotivated, lose trust in the organization’s core values, and the culture starts to feel oppressive and forced.
Reports show that a successful company culture is increasingly maintained not from the top down but from the ground up, through a people-focused approach that incorporates lived values with support from leadership.
In this article we’ll take a look at five of the most ineffective gimmicks currently plaguing offices the world over. Let’s get started.
1. The ‘cult’ in culture
In their bid to develop unique cultural identities that resist the status quo, some companies have led the way in creating innovative and dynamic cultures.
Others, though, have gone off the deep end by implementing strange rituals, even stranger values, and unconventional ways of defining employee engagement.
In short, they’ve started a cult.
Run a search for the term ‘cult’ or ‘cultish’ on Glassdoor and you might be surprised by how pernicious and widespread this problem is in the modern workplace, including in some of largest and most well-known corporations.
So, what are the tell-tale signs that your company culture might be headed towards (or is already in) cult territory? If your company discourages or outright prohibits critical thinking and/or dissenting voices, you may be more like a cult than a company. Or, if your organization’s leadership are treated like divine superhumans who cannot be questioned and whose genius and preternatural capacity for innovation knows no bounds.
If this sounds like your workplace, run. A robust company culture invites criticism, open communication, and respectful debate at all levels of the organization. Other signs that you’ve unwittingly become a cult member:
- The company insists on enacting bizarre rituals. For example, the infamous “morning cheer” at one extremely well-known American multinational retailer that’s known for its soul-crushing company culture (Google it if you have to). These are intended to build a sense of greater purpose and cohesion among team members, but more often than not, they do just the opposite. Employees show up to do good work, not pledge allegiance.
- Personality tests are used to place employees into boxes, and decisions are made based on each employee’s ‘personality type.’ Sadly, this is still a common phenomenon, particularly in larger organizations where it’s more difficult to get to know every employee. If your employer forces you to self-identify as a ‘type’ of person instead of viewing you as a contributing member of the team with unique needs and interests, proceed with caution.
- If there’s a fanatical devotion to ‘culture’ to the point where it’s firmly embedded in absolutely every aspect of the company—processes, policies, language, how people speak to one another, decision-making, evaluations, hiring, termination—this could quickly turn into a problem. In this case, the ‘culture’ itself is the gimmick that gets in the way of doing good work and operating a successful business.
As academic Dave Arnott explains in his book Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, some companies intentionally adopt the cult approach to reposition work as a replacement for family and community. In other words, the goal is to make your life entirely about your job.
But the companies that consistently rank among the best in corporate culture tend to avoid the trappings of the cultish workplace. All of the companies on that list have one thing in common: they treat their workers as talented individuals rather than cult followers, personality types, or family members. Which goes to show that company culture should be fluid and versatile, open to change, and not centered around a personality or particular way of thinking.
2. The “fun” office
Look, I’m not against having fun at work. Ideally, one’s job is enjoyable as well as satisfying. However, there are ways to promote having fun at work without going overboard and turning the office into a children’s playroom.
Tech companies in particular are the most famous perpetrators of this trend: their offices littered with ping pong tables, bean bag chairs, climbing walls, scooters whizzing by, you name it. All of which is supposed to exude flexibility and a relaxed attitude towards work.
We get it, you’re hip.
But because company culture has such a profound influence on the way in which work is done on a day-to-day basis, it’s often not in the company’s or the employees’ best interest to take advantage of these perks while on the job.
From an employee’s point of view, there’s a stigma attached to being seen as the person who plays ping pong during working hours. There’s also the implicit expectation that if you’re seen playing pong, you’ll have to stay longer, even if you’ve finished the day’s work. Most of the time, Xboxes and ping pong tables in offices remain dusty and unused for this reason alone.
Or, they’re used but only by an exclusive group of ultra-competitive die-hards, thereby creating a dividing line between those who play and those who don’t. And competition in the office isn’t always healthy.
From the employer’s perspective, too many distractions and too much flexibility can lead to a less productive labor force and can reflect poorly on the company when meeting with clients and partners.
It’s important to emphasize that the presence of these gimmicks isn’t actually ‘company culture.’ Rather, they’re an attempt to convince the workforce that there’s a culture at their organization worth caring about and believing in when, in many cases, there isn’t. This can lead to the production of a faux culture that lacks any substance or lived values whatsoever.
These perks work for companies like Google, sure. And I’m not saying every office should ditch their ping pong table. If it works well for your company and your workforce doesn’t feel excluded or reluctant to participate, obviously it should stay. But as a symbol for core values like ‘flexibility’ or ‘trust’ without the lived values to stand behind it, these gimmicks are empty, even deceptive… and your people can see right through them.
3. Tired team building exercises
One of the most important things to keep in mind when planning a team building exercise for your team is: your team members are adults.
No one wants to pass balloons between their legs or play laser tag or solve puzzles or go on a scavenger hunt. If they do, they don’t want to do so under the assumption that performing these tasks will somehow lead to a more cohesive, efficient team.
Team building exercises play a large part in the formation of a company’s culture, not because they’re themselves representative of the company’s values, but because they’re often a response to a perceived problem within a specific team or with the culture as a whole.
In Forbes, Liz Ryan, CEO/Founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap, explains that “when a team hasn't gelled and isn't communicating, it's not because they need team-building training. It's because there is an energetic blockage in the mix and no one is talking about it.
That's the elephant in the room, and it's a leadership problem 100% of the time. An entire industry has sprung up around the made-up and juvenile idea of forcible team-building, all to prevent leaders from having to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the culture and communication on their teams.”
Tired, cliche team building activities (Marketing vs Sales tug-of-war!) are a huge drag on your company’s culture and your employees’ morale. More importantly, they’re not going to solve your culture problem. Holding a poorly thought out team building activity may even exacerbate the problem.
Consider instead focusing on improving existing work-related tasks and processes or finding out the reason why you think your team needs to do some building in the first place.
4. Fireside chats that are no longer transparent
I’m all for fireside chats, All Hands, and open Q&A sessions with the leadership team. They’re an excellent opportunity to build trust, interact candidly with the leaders of your organization, and, ideally, get some honest answers about the trajectory and overall health of the company. The regularly held fireside chat is a key culture component for any company whose list of core values includes transparency or openness.
But when fireside chats stop being transparent and start resembling a White House press briefing, it becomes glaringly obvious to your workforce that something is deeply wrong.
If the leadership team dodges questions, twists truths, and tries to appease the firing squad with non-answers (or simply refuses to answer legitimate questions), the once transparent fireside chat has been reduced to a gimmick.
This can lead to a huge decline in morale, not to mention a growing unwillingness from all parties to participate in the Q&A sessions. No one wants to be in the hot seat when things aren’t going well, and it’s scary to be the one asking tough questions. In short, it’s stressful for everyone involved.
If Q&A sessions are starting to seem a little too guarded at your organization, it’s time to take a step back and refocus on open communication, trust, and transparency.
Deodutta Kurane, Group President of Human Capital Management at YES Bank explains further: “Communication must be honest, open and two-way. Creating and encouraging open channels of communication and feedback is in itself a significant endorsement of transparency.”
Sometimes it can be tricky to get in front of your workforce and be completely candid, especially if business goals aren’t being met or if confidentiality is a concern. The key to building a culture based on trust and transparency is to lead by example and communicate openly, even when you have to deliver bad news.
Your employees might not like what they hear, but they’ll respect you for living your company’s values.
5. Events centered around drinking
Several companies attempt to demonstrate their fun-loving, flexible culture by proudly offering free beer on Fridays, or scheduling events with names like ‘Thirsty Thursday,’ or talking incessantly about the office kegerator.
These drinking-focused perks and outings are intended to win over employees, but at the same time they alienate team members who don’t drink (for various reasons) or those who simply don’t enjoy mixing business with pleasure.
Which is not to say that drinking in the office or together after work should be discouraged. It’s possible, common even, to drink at work responsibly. Just don’t make it out to be representative of your values. Chill out about alcohol, basically.
Emily Steck, Writer at Officeninjas, points out that “the actions of one person or one bad outcome can wreck the fun for the rest of the office, making a formal policy necessary. Whether you choose to work drinking policies or informal rules into onboarding or leave the call up to your team, the decisions should reflect your company’s culture. However, having a formal policy backed by HR ensures you’re safe, not sorry.”
The companies that tend to get culture wrong often view ‘culture’ as the right combination of perks and gimmicks, as if all it comes down to is a secret formula. While these perks might be universally loved and accepted by employees at other successful companies, it doesn’t mean that they’re the right path for your organization.
A healthy culture comes from a combination of lived core values and unity around a common goal, purpose, or cause. How do you figure out your company’s purpose and values? Take a deep look at your people, and come to understand what’s most important to them. Literally ask them. Is it a ping pong table or something else? Cut out that which doesn’t work and nurture and support the rest.