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Right now there seems to be a push – ok, honestly, it started during the pandemic and with the layoffs right now it feels like it’s a big question mark – about creating a great company culture. There have been a lot of buzzwords to define what that ideal culture is to attract and retain key talent.

But, what’s the reality of our culture – and the options we have to influence it?

Before I dive in, I want to preface this with a few important notes:

  • Each of the culture categories below can be good or bad – they are all reasonable and acceptable cultures!
  • The company culture path may not be aligned with the type of culture you, personally, want to work in (and this is usually the case) – so we’re going to view this through an HR lens.
  • Culture types are defined by how the company makes decisions and is aligned with their actions – not what their words are.
  • The last one will be a bit controversial. 😉

Every company has essentially three choices when it comes to culture:

  1. Profit-first culture 
  2. People-first culture 
  3. Non-culture culture/work-mission culture  (y’all know I’m terrible at naming things, so if you have a better name, please let me know)

1. Profit-first culture 💰

The profit-first culture is the most common workplace culture out there. The basic principle is that the company’s goals, mission, direction, vision, etc. are all geared toward delivering the most profit for the company’s shareholders/owners.

There may be talk about being people-first and adding in some ESG or Diversity and Inclusion goals, but at the end of the day, the company makes decisions based on how profitable the company will be. This includes things like: salary; bonus structure/program; merit and performance reviews; what behavior is recognized and celebrated; what projects are funded and slashed; and so on.

You can easily identify these cultures from the outside when you see big sweeping layoffs for example. Not because layoffs don’t happen at every type of company, but because they grew and are now detracting, based on profitability. An easy example is this week with Meta and Amazon – both companies who are proudly profit-first companies (regardless of their sometimes talk about their people).

A profit-first culture can be a great place to work – those two things have literally zero correlation. I think this is the part that so many of us get wrong. We think that a focus on profits creates a bad work environment, when in reality, a bad work environment is created by so many more things.

Also – there are people who thrive in this type of environment, especially the higher up the ladder you go. Profit-first cultures tend to (generally) be more competitive with their total compensation packages; rely on employees growing their own careers; and expect employees to be their own best advocates for things like raises and promotions.

The drawbacks can include the feeling of job insecurity; that you’re a cog-in-the-wheel type of employee (easily replaceable); money is invested in areas that don’t seem the most urgent from HR’s perspective; a constant focus on increasing profitability and efficiency.

2. People-first culture 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

A people-first culture is a rather new thing that gained a lot of attention in the last five years. The premise is that companies make decisions based on how they will impact their employees/people. There are very few companies that have truly people-first cultures.

Why, it sounds so good?

Because it’s HARD to reprogram companies to think very differently about work and profitability.

The reality is businesses exist to make income and be profitable. This can absolutely be the case for people-first cultures, but, it’s not the driving force for the company and how they make decisions. And of course, there’s always the lingering question about how much money was left on the table because you did this instead of that.

These cultures can be harder to identify because it’s more than the words they say out loud, but also how decisions are made.

For example, I have worked with a company that on the outside was VERY people-first focused. And frankly, on the inside, they CEO walked the walk. However, when it came to investing their internal funds, they made their decisions based on how they would profit in the market – not, how it would impact their employees. To be fair, they were the closest company I have worked with to being a true people-first culture – they were about 75% there. But it’s very difficult to get to 100% in today’s financial environment.

A profit-first culture (or a mostly-people-first culture) can be a great place to work and it also has its drawbacks. On the positive side, they tend to have more job stability when it comes to layoffs, they invest in their employee’s personal growth and development with fervor, and they have a more close-knit feel.

Some drawbacks can include a lack of market stability and/or growth, overly people-focused tipping into emotionally driven decisions/environments, and it can be difficult to justify projects that need to happen but aren’t a people-first initiative. And, one of the most burdensome things about this type of culture, is that they have to have a public response/answer for all things going on in the social, political, economic environment around the world.

There are few people, in my opinion, who would thrive in both a profit-first and people-first culture as they are dramatically different on the inside. And, contrary to popular belief, I don’t know if a majority of the workforce would love working at a people-first company (even though the buzz sounds great). However, if you’re someone (or a company) who values nurturing, growth, relationships, and people above all else, this can be a great culture for you.

3. Non-culture culture/work-mission culture 💻

Friends, this is an emerging stated culture and it’s definitely not a crowd favorite on the surface… in fact, it’s a bit controversial. However, it is a real culture option and it’s gaining more traction in today’s work environment.

A non-culture culture/work-mission culture is a company that removes creating culture completely from the equation. There’s no focus or investment (time, money, or otherwise) on building a culture. Instead, their employees come to work, to work – and fulfill their culture needs outside of work after-hours.

There are no “water cooler” conversations, participation expectations, engagement surveys, slack channels about pets, etc. Instead, they keep it professional and focused on their deliverables and/or the bigger mission the company is trying to solve. Employees are successful based on their performance and delivery alone – not any of the other outside “factors.”

A few quick thoughts on this.

First, it may harken back to the days before “HR” was a thing and we were possibly Personnel. Essentially, show up, do your job, and go home – without a focus or investment on “making employees happy.”

Second, being this type of culture does NOT mean that you don’t treat your employees well – it simply removes the pressure, time, and focus on things like “engagement” and “happiness” and a lot of the interpersonal drama that goes along with companies trying to make work a “second home.”

Third, there are MANY people who would not only thrive in this type of environment, but are WISHING they worked at a place like this. If you’re an Enneagram fan, I know several 8s who would jump for joy for this! Perhaps introverts or people who consider themselves socially awkward and/or people who have absolutely zero interest in making work a social environment.

That’s the key – work isn’t another place to be social, it’s a place to do your work as quickly with as high competence as possible, and go home to fill your soul with all the things there with your friends and family.

Companies that started going down this route during the pandemic were CoinBase and BaseCamp – and there are several entrepreneur businesses/start-ups that I work with, who are heading down this path intentionally.

It’s a huge shift and for this to be successful at companies, the right leaders are critical – and being upfront about the shift for employees will help this be successful.