Is your culture made of gold or fool's gold?


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When I hear people talk about how awesome their organizational culture is, I often find myself wondering what sort of “great” culture it is.

For me, great cultures fall into two categories: entitlement and mission-driven. Those “best places to work” lists don't usually make a distinction, but I do. Here is the difference:

Entitlement cultures

The surest sign of an entitlement culture? When someone tells you why they like their work, they give you an example of a benefit not related to the work itself. Some examples:

I get on-site daycare.
I get free snacks and drinks.
We have great health benefits.
We have a flexible work-from-home policy.


From what I’ve observed, entitlement-driven cultures resonate most with people who have a deeply held desire for safety, security, and quality of life.
 
Mission-driven cultures

It’s no secret that I believe organizations with a strong shared purpose, mission, or vision beyond the bottom line have a huge advantage over those that don’t. I was able to witness the power of a mission-driven culture first hand at Red Hat, and I see these cultures all of the time in the both the open source and design worlds.

Ask someone why they like working in a mission-driven organization, and they are likely to say things like these:

I believe in what we are doing.
I love coming to work every day.
I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
I am changing the world.


My personal experience has been that mission-driven cultures resonate most with people who have a deeply held desire to find meaning in their work above all else.

Can companies have both cultures at once, and be both entitlement-driven and mission-driven? Absolutely!

And a culture where people believe in what they do and enjoy safety, security, and quality of life is the best kind, right? Let me be controversial:

I don’t think that is true.

When it comes to creating high-performing organizations, I wonder whether entitlement cultures are fool’s gold—shiny on the outside, but less valuable than they seem at first glance. I also wonder whether organizations attempting to be both entitlement and mission-driven at the same time might be damaging their innovative potential more than they know.

“But Chris,” I already hear you protesting, “that is such a callous point of view! We absolutely want to create workplaces that provide safety and security for our lives and at the same time provide opportunities to do meaningful work.”

I agree completely. Workplaces that provide both mission-driven work and quality of life benefits are ideal from the employee (and in many ways from society)’s point of view.

But if you are trying to create a highly innovative organization, what sorts of people do you want to attract and keep?

A culture that is both mission and entitlement-driven will definitely attract and retain the right people... but it will also provide a powerful incentive for those who aren’t driven by the mission to stick around for the free snacks and childcare.

If your culture is attempting to be both things at once, you may find yourself with two classes of employees: those who are there because they believe and those who simply want to stay on the gravy train. And there is nothing that can turn a believer into a former employee faster than being surrounded by people who don’t believe and are just there for the snacks.

So what’s the right mix? In my view, mission-driven cultures should not attempt to also be entitlement-driven cultures, but instead should view their benefits and entitlements, to steal some brand positioning lingo, as points of parity.

Meaning, they should provide good enough employee benefits and entitlements that, given the amazing mission of the company, people would still chose to work there even though they might be able to get better benefits elsewhere. A nice side effect is that those people who are just there for the entitlements may actually chose to leave and go work for that other organization that provides better benefits. Everyone leaves happy!

When I used to teach the brand and culture session in Red Hat orientation a few years back, I would talk about how you “couldn’t hide” at Red Hat, and how different that was from my previous corporate experiences.

You know the “hiders.” They are the people who keep their heads down, attend meetings all day, and don’t ever take any risks. Creating too strong of an entitlement culture is a breeding ground for folks who love to hide... and once they are in an organization, they are incredibly hard to get out.

So what do you think of the way I’ve characterized these cultural differences? Do you know of a “great place to work” that doesn’t fall into one or both of these categories or otherwise defies this logic? Do you disagree with me and see an innovation benefit to entitlement cultures I’ve missed?

Fool’s gold or gold? I’d love to hear what you think.

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1 Comment

Charles H. Green's picture

Lovely distinction, Chris, and I couldn't agree with you more; especially about the ultimately more-valuable mission-based culture. For those who might disagree, let me offer a way to think about it.

Founders and leaders may want to offer great benefits and values to employees. I think that's great. As long as they're perceived as great, and the employees remain grateful.

But you pointed out the dark side in your choice of terms; once it becomes a culture of 'entitlement,' gratitude leaves, and a sullen sense of you-owe-me begins to creep in. The Christmas turkey phenomenon--once you give one away, it becomes expected.

Ultimately we're all better off not only getting what we want, but wanting what we get as well.