real vs cool in the brand culture wars

There’s this huge competition between companies these days to showcase just how “cool” they are to work for — one that’s escalated into an all-out culture war between brands. Whether it’s a new startup or a company that’s suddenly discovered its hip swagger, “Watch us have fun at work!” or “Look at how we spend our free time!” videos have infested the interwebs.

Why “Hip” Is NOT The New “Culture”

At a recent conference, I became very frustrated at how the presenters seemed more interested in showing everyone how “cool” they were and how they’d achieved the next level of hip, rather than actually teaching the attendees something of value (at one point, we were asked to stand up and shout their brand name – they planned to cut a video of it). Of course, marketers use ego bait all the time for self-serving purposes, but at a conference where attendees are paying in time and money to be there, to me, this is neither cool nor hip.

I’d like to blame Google for this, with their gizmos, pool tables, volleyball courts, and whatnot, but do you think Google had all this stuff when they started? This is NOT the foundation they built their company on. (Then again, it’s always fun to blame Google!)

It’s easy to believe that we attract the best talent by offering these cool things — and it very well might be the case. Even struggling companies can fall victim to the siren song of workplace extras. It’s become the Gilded Age Of Stuff, which can be interpreted by employees as a comparatively cheap alternative to addressing more serious issues affecting employee engagement.

But is all this stuff really what talented folks want? I’m not so sure I believe it. You can build a state-of-the-hip office and attract talented people, but do you have the mechanisms in place to actually retain them.

Organically Building Company Culture

In Drive, Daniel Pink talks about the three requirements for creating motivated individuals: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I’m not so sure that having a foosball table at your job is going to help bring you any closer to these objectives. We want to direct our own lives — especially when it’s inside of a work environment where there are forces and constraints that feel outside of the team’s control.

The problem with showering your workplace with toys and extras to retain employees and wow candidates is that it comes from above and can distract leadership from the most basic needs in the organization. Little is done to achieve autonomy, mastery, and purpose by providing a ping pong table in the conference room.

Culture has to grow organically, and should come from the bottom up more than top down. When a team’s basic needs are fulfilled, they can help guide what extra benefits are meaningful to them. In other words, a culture coming from the team is going to be far more effective than one dictated by a CEO.

I’m not trying to poo poo having these cool things — heck, I’d love to have an indoor lap pool and roller skating rink with ramps (OK – we sort of have one of these already – see below). What I don’t agree with is spending money on these things to fix a broken culture, or to create an artificial one.

Scootering on a the DragonSearch ramp

Keeping It Flexible As You Grow

Going back to the vision of attracting top talent with unexpected extras, let’s remember how critical it is to hire on merit — and not because you think someone fits your fabricated culture. There are so many interesting and talented people that can add great value to your team, fill the gaps that exist, and add to the conversation. Many of these people might not be an obvious adopter of your culture, and someone shouldn’t be overlooked because they don’t seem to “fit the mold.”

When a company has a great culture, you feel it when you walk in the door; you can see it on the faces of the team. There is an energy, an excitement. You cannot manufacture that — no matter how much money or stuff you throw at it. When you’re hiring the right people, this is what’s going to be attractive to them.

I’ll take real over cool any day.

Oh and by the way, we’re hiring.

How do you feel about the “look how cool we are” mentality? How do you define culture in your organization? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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