S&M: You give work a bad name

“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”

– Albert Einstein 


Corporate culture. Two words that have raised eyebrows, twisted office attire, and left questions unanswered since the two words were strung together in that big old conglomerate universe. 

From companies like Toyota with hierarchical structures, to Spotify with an autonomous, agility-to-scale structure, to the matrix organisational structure of Starbucks, to a divisional organisational structure like McDonald’s, to Amazon’s flat organisational structure, it’s obvious that each of these corporations have their own aesthetic and internal ethos to stand out and apart from each other. Then it also goes without saying that different types of organisations will inspire, inculcate, and incorporate different cultures. 


So what on earth is ‘corporate culture’? 


Corporate culture (CC) can best be defined as a set of behavioural factors and beliefs, the indoctrinated values, the narrative, and ingrained features pertaining to how an organisation characterises and navigates itself by way of virtue and function. 
Let’s narrow it down further. CC is the mindset, attitude, and habits, and how a company behaves in its day-to-day operations. 

Yes, organisational structure plays a part. Yes, operational framework plays a role. Of course the human capital element is an integral link in that elaborate corporate chain. 

But what does CC mean to you? Is it how employees embrace a brand and its principles? Is it how the company reflectively embodies the identity and image that organisation wishes to exude to the public? Is it traits and attributes of a way of thinking, acting, and performing embedded deep into the organisation’s inherent subconscious? 

Every company has its own set of customs and traditions. Not all of these habits passed down from generation to generation are necessarily healthy. In fact, they may not contribute anything to the organisation’s growth, productivity, long-term objectives, mission, and vision. 


Alone in paradise 


Here in our lavish backwater Eden, many companies endorse a “blind leading the blind; if it ain’t broke why fix it?; hook, line, and sinker; oh this is how we’ve always done things” culture here. All lock, stock, and galore with smoke and mirrors espousing corporate governance, HR training programmes, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and sustainability initiatives. 

It’s all done by the book, with promised return on investment (ROI) to the shareholders and investors, and all the right jargon articulated, meticulous audits and external projections of concern and care for valuing its human resources, the ecological repercussions of reducing the carbon footprint, raising awareness on global warming, and stringent green policies brandished in communications. Bravo.

Or not.

But what do many of these companies really believe in? What do they really practice and preach when you strip away the year-end financials, sensationalism, public perceptions, and layers of clever marketing?

If you look around with an attentive gaze, you will see brands running campaigns of green initiatives and embellished messages of reducing plastic still selling products, fresh produce, juices, and other items in non-biodegradable shopping bags, cups, etc. You see campaigns run by mega conglomerates on customer care where customers are treated with little respect, no value, and no effort made by them to retain their existing clientele, while trying to acquire and generate new leads. 

How many companies talk about their workforce being their greatest asset, but the internal office politics, where the top brass favours select sycophants and bootlickers, is a glorified custom; where any fresh blood with innovation and vision is shunned, chastised, and ostracised by threatened vets having outdated and mundane habits.

We see a large turnover rate here. It’s easy to blame the younger generations for jumping from one job to another. It’s a lot harder to acquiesce and concede that the problem might be in the company’s environment, its personality, and behavioural habits, and how it might need to adopt new policies, conducive frameworks, and be adaptive to global changes. Stop pointing fingers outward, and mayhap start pointing them inwards. 

How many organisations needed to have instantaneous facelifts the moment Covid-19 shook the world? Brands and conglomerates that refused to adapt and evolve immediately turned to salary slashes, cost cutting, and hacking away at the core of its human capital, citing redundancies. 

Isn’t it ironic that really big brands lacked adequate risk management systems, adaptive protocols, and accurate leadership during the calamitous uprise of the global pandemic? Where instead of looking at how to adjust its operations and frameworks to align with the changes brought about by the pandemic, their first response was to figure out how to satisfy the hierarchy and maintain their remuneration by weeding out loyal employees in the lower rungs of the ladder who’ve spent many years slaving for them. 


Original sin 


Let’s trace the breadcrumbs back to where many of these problems originate. Many companies allow conflict and tension to be palpable. Companies allow its bad habits and out-moded aspects to become portentous and perpetuate into bigger issues. 

The whole “ayya, malli, akka, nangi” versus respect for designation cultural dichotomy. Establishing clear cut roles are important. This is so for any team sport, musical ensemble, or office environment. Experience is certainly significant. Yet skill and performance is equally important. 

How many places have this misconstrued household masquerade “ayya, malli, akka, nangi” culture where the vast pretence of team spirit is reflected in how everyone shares their breakfast and lunch in the meal room, how they gang and gossip during tea and cigarette breaks, and wait like eager beavers to punch out for the day regardless of any productivity or progress made. Don’t forget the Lankan system of putting the cart before the horse simply because the cart has been with us for longer, doesn’t add to organisational growth, longevity, and productivity. 

Obliterating this mentality of cultural ideological monikers may well be a first step towards ensuring that everyone’s job roles are identified, understood, regarded, respected, and not relegated. The quality of work should ideally surpass the quantity of service.  

Too many companies are process driven and not people oriented. 

As discussed above, some organisations emphasise only on achieving results and not on valuing its stakeholders. Remember the Wells Fargo scandal, anyone? Take your pick of conglomerates that would sell the souls and skins of their own employees to achieve profitability.  

Communication in the company only flows down and not up. A healthy company is one where everyone across the spectrum of the organisation has an open dialogue and conversations to gauge the pros and cons within the company and certain decision making. Often when it’s a single-sided system, this results in the management being disconnected from their employees, and so they have no knowledge of how demotivated, dissatisfied, and disgruntled their workforce is. Communication is such a small thing, but a key component in the make or break of an organisation.  

Finally the lackadaisical, stagnant, stuck-in-a-rut, slothful, and regressive disposition of enterprises encouraging problem abating, and never with solutions for problem solving. Sure, the figures and bottom line may be sufficient to move into a new operational year, but do you have sustainable, long-term growth? How will you respond to issues in changes in markets, consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behaviour? Are you able to adapt by aligning your CC with new technologies, fresh ways of thinking and countering issues, lucrative strategies, and diversifying your offerings and portfolio to give exceeding value to all your stakeholders?  

Just as they say every road leads somewhere (even a dead-end is technically a somewhere), every problem starts somewhere. Truth is that good leadership can often help elude issues from worsening into tragic proportions.  

As Simon Sinek says, leadership is a choice, not a rank. Anyone in an organisation can be a leader. “It’s choosing to look out for the person on your left and to look out for the person on your right.”
Something to think about.  

Suresh de Silva is the frontman and lyricist of Stigmata, a creative consultant and brand strategist by profession, a self-published author and poet, thespian, animal rescuer, podcaster, and fitness enthusiast.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.