A Critique of “Don’t Fuck Up The Culture”

I enjoyed Brian Chesky’s recent post Don’t Fuck Up The Culture, where he proclaims to the employees of Airbnb the importance of culture in everything they do. I like Airbnb and it’s nice to see a founder emphasize culture.

But there’s sloppy thinking at work here (see: mistakes of writing about culture). The first problem is there is a field of study of culture: it’s called anthropology. When business and technologists sling the word culture around as if they invented it they get themselves into trouble. Modern start-ups are worthy of cultural study, but to use that small sample in ignorance of a broader view of culture is myopic.

Chesky wrote:

Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.

No. That’s certainly a nice sentiment but it’s not a definition of culture. A proper definition is something like: culture is the willing behaviors and beliefs of a group of people. Many cultures are not passionate, or certainly not passionate primarily about work. It’s implied that these behaviors and beliefs are things people practice by choice, but that’s a mild denial of the role of hierarchy in culture. Most human cultures depend on leaders to define, modify and reinforce the behaviors and beliefs of the group.

This means a CEO or founder has tremendous power regarding culture. They are the only person who can:

  • Fire anyone
  • Hire anyone
  • Decide how/why people are rewarded
  • Decide how/why people are punished

And with those 4 powers, every CEO is in fact a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is. Without these four powers any employee at the company is along for the ride in a culture driven by someone more powerful than they are. By the time the first handful of employees are hired, the culture already exists whether anyone realizes it or not. The people with the most power to fuck up the culture are simply the ones with the most power.

And of course the most vocal challengers to most cultures are the first to be shown the door. It’s in human nature to want to eliminate the most disruptive people. And it’s also human nature to want to bring in more people that fit in well. Repeat these two behaviors over time and culture becomes homogeny, even if everyone still believes the culture values diversity. Is the culture still the same at that point? Everyone still there might believe so, but the people who left because of the culture don’t get asked their opinion.

Of course a democratically inclined leader will delegate the above powers in thoughtful ways, and invite more people to play leadership roles, including people who are disruptive in positive ways. But unless the CEO can be elected out of CEOship, the entire culture is at best a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy where the culture of power can be changed. How power is distributed has a primary role in defining culture, and that distribution must inevitably change as a company grows.

The thing that will endure for 100 years, the way it has for most 100 year companies, is the culture.

There is no company that has the same culture today that it did 10, 20 or 100 years ago. Cultures often change dramatically as they shift from birth, to immature success, to full maturity (and of course the vast majority of companies die before they even hit adolescence). Study the history of HP, Ford, IBM, Microsoft, or even Google and Facebook, and this observation is revealed. You have to do careful study to filter out which cultural values remained immutable over time, if any at all. Ask the first ten employees to leave a successful company why they left, and many will answer “the company changed.” Which is fine: it probably needed to change to continue its success.

The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation.

This is partially true, and partially a denial that it’s also culture that eventually becomes the single biggest resistance to innovation (and any kind of change). Any tradition, no matter how noble in its inception, eventually becomes the primary force of resistance against new ideas. Again, study the failure of any once great company: often its the powerful defenders or the status quo, under the guise of culture, that accelerated their demise (“that’s not how we do things here”). That is why culture is tricky, as you want pride in the past, but want it tempered so it doesn’t hold you back from progress. The champions of the last war may not be the best leaders in the next one, but who decides who the leaders are? Only the leaders from the past have that power.

Our next team meeting is dedicated to Core Values, which are essential to building our culture… After we closed our Series C with Peter Thiel in 2012, we invited him to our office. This was late last year, and we were in the Berlin room showing him various metrics. Midway through the conversation, I asked him what was the single most important piece of advice he had for us. He replied, “Don’t fuck up the culture.”

Thiel is right, but his observation isn’t particularly helpful. Nearly every organization ruins its culture in some ways, even if it does amazingly well. It depends on what culture you prefer: risk taking or stability? scrappy or luxurious? When an entire company fits in a van it has one vibe, when it barely fits in a stadium, it has another. And more importantly we’re talking about corporations, not orphanages. Once a major profit source is found the goal is to exploit that profit for as long as possible. Thiel’s quote doesn’t acknowledge the presumption that shifting from discovering how to profit, to maximizing (or at least increasing) profit is what a corporation is built for. That shift demands dramatic changes to the culture. Even a simple thing like significantly improving the wealth of employees changes the culture.

The very notion of Core Values, a declaration of cultural philosophy for an organization, is a standard move from the corporate playbook. The existence of a list of values has limited bearing on how often they’re practiced (e.g. the ten commandments). As mentioned above, the behavior of leaders defines culture more than anything else. I’m sure Enron and WorldCom had the same basic values handbook most corporations do, describing how angelic, smart, collaborative and honorable everyone is supposed to be. Platitudes are cheap to produce and put on posters in hallways. What’s missing from these handbooks is a test. How do you know your Core Values are actually being practiced?

How To Test The Value of Core Values:

  • Can an employee say NO to a decision from a superior on the grounds it violates a core value?

Try to imagine it. Would a cultural value from your corporate handbook ever be used in making an actual decision about actual work? If the answer is no, then the values are platitudes, or were written so generically that they’re easily overlooked or easily manipulated to justify just about anything (depending on your opinion, Google’s don’t be evil is either a good example or a bad one).

Culture is critically important and I’m glad Chesky is bringing it up. If he’s a good leader and manager he’ll invite his staff to challenge him on the values he defines, and how the proclaimed values are tested.

But there is a presumption among many executives that culture is an asset created and managed like technological resources, which is a mistake. Culture is emotional. It is based on trust and even (platonic) love between people. It is hard to describe culture rationally or in the same easily measurable terms the business world operates on, which explains why so many attempts by business leaders to control and scale culture ultimately fail.

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70 Responses to “A Critique of “Don’t Fuck Up The Culture””

  1. Phil Simon

    Interesting post. When I think of culture, I almost always start with Drucker’s quote: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Here in Vegas, Tony Hsieh preaches the importance of culture. It’s interesting to watch Zappos (a fairly generous company) coexist with Amazon (a notoriously frugal culture).

    I’m with you that culture is fluid. I’ll concede that it’s an asset–or, at least, it can be. It can also be a liability on many levels. Regardless of which, culture certainly isn’t static over the long term.

    1. Scott

      That quote is hyperbole – it’s fun to say but what does it mean? Especially as it’s a false dichotomy (you need both). I can also think of examples of companies that succeeded primarily based on strategy with little concern about culture, particularly the early industrial age companies (Ford, Rockefeller Oil, Vanderbuilt’s trains, etc.). At least back then, if the work was on assembly lines the culture that mattered wasn’t the working class.

      The Zappos / Amazon thing must be fascinating to observe and the tensions will likely increase over time. That’s what I observed at Microsoft – acquisitions were often told they’d be left alone, but little by little the differences in how they worked became annoying to executives and soon there was pressure for the acquired company to copy and emulate the practices Microsoft had. That behavior is all anthropology, as the same thing happens when tribes absorb other tribes.

  2. Sean Crawford

    I see that on previous posts you have covered writing, and on this post you have mentioned Chief Cultural Officer.
    I have found that the best seller of that name, by Grant McCracken, offers me model paragraphs for learning to write nonfiction… I wonder how many readers realized that a part of their pleasure in that book was from the level of writing.

    1. Scott

      I interviewed McCracken once for HBR years ago. I have a copy of that book but I’ve never read it, so was shy about including the link. I just added it now.

  3. Pawel Brodzinski

    Hi Scott,

    This is my favorite piece of yours since quite some time.

    While I noticed a few oversimplifications in Brian’s post I believe it is very valuable as even when it bases on misconceptions it points the right direction.

    What you’ve done here is not only have you straighten a few things but you also brought the discussion to another level. “Don’t fuck up the culture” isn’t much of actionable point after all.

    I would point a couple minor things though.

    I don’t think there’s a way to directly shape organizational culture. Since the culture is the entirety of everyone’s behaviors one can’t mandate such a change. In fact even direct change of anyone’s behavior is tricky at best.

    What leaders can, and should, do is work on the constraints of the system: what is allowed, encouraged, discouraged and acceptable. Also, as you point what is rewarded and what is punished. Even then, the change of behaviors isn’t predictable and can go in pretty random direction.

    One needs a lot of attention and focus to steer the culture evolution in any desired direction.

    I’d also point that hiring / firing decisions are rarely directly made by CEO. Of course these decisions are typically made by managers who were promoted by CEO (or managers promoted by managers promoted by CEO) so CEO has indirectly influenced them. It is not a rare case when promotions decisions are a subject of the same bias that hiring decisions and they end up with culture uniformity. In fact, one reinforces the other.

    The same mechanism, however, is sometimes a source of culture silos that pop up in bigger organizations. If for whatever reasons a person with different values, beliefs and behaviors lands in a position of power, e.g. senior management, they may exploit the situation to influence the culture within their area of influence which would typically radiate further and temporarily or permanently change what is organizational culture in that context.

    There’s also one thing that we frequently take for granted and I believe it shouldn’t be so, which is growth. Obviously as an organization grows its culture changes. If we value the culture highly we may choose not to grow. BTW: I love those blank stares when I mention that this actually is our strategy :)

    And this goes along with accepting the fact that on occasions we may be choosing not to exploit a profit source.

    1. Scott

      You’ve identified one of the implied contradictions in what Chesky wrote, and in what many founders believe. The ambition to become a $1 billion or $10 billion company is a growth ambition, and growth changes cultures. There’s no way around it.

      You can certainly hope to grow while protecting certain values, or to prefer certain kinds of growth, but that’s still going to mean changing is treated as desirable.

      As you point out someone truly committed to culture, or protecting culture, would maintain quality over growth, even if that meant never becoming a $1 billion company. Getting big is presumed obsession about entrepreneurs in this era – it wasn’t alway that way.

  4. Laurence Hart

    Generally speaking, “Don’t fuck up the culture.” should not be confused with not changing the culture. As you note, culture evolves, and HAS to evolve, at successful organization. I think it is possible to change without fucking it up. The key is to try and understand the changes, why they are happening, and acknowledge the changes.

    Love the point about making sure that decisions reflect the core values for them to have meaning. That is something not enough organizations think about.


  5. Steve Portigal

    It may be worth remembering that culture is transmitted/generated/strengthened by stories. Leaders do things that people talk about. But they aren’t the only ones. The leaders hold the power to eliminate or encourage actions->stories that they don’t want, but they actually can’t control stories. Efforts to control stories become stories and become culture.

    1. Scott

      When I wrote The Myths of Innovation I studied the origin stories of many companies. When they reach a certain level of success most do work to deliberately control their origin stories. Ebay was the most glaring where they invented a mythology around the sale of Pez dispensers. It’s self reinforcing for these stories to be inaccurate as everyone in the organization wants the stories to be inspiring, romantic, and meaningful, regardless of how true they are.

      So you’re right about culture being transmitted, in part, through stories. But what’s often overlooked is those stories don’t have to be true for them to function in that way.

  6. Paul Klipp

    Most anthropologists would agree that a key component of a definition of culture is that it is learned. That fits well into your overall thesis, as education is one of the tools of power.

  7. Anthony Green

    What are your thoughts on Semco’s model of management? Do more autonomous empowered employees, if that’s what we accept they have, make for a more ergonomical company culture?

      1. Anthony Green

        “Today’s Semco doesn’t have a traditional management hierarchy or typical organizational chart, or even a matrix or lattice management structure. The company is effectively made up of autonomous, democratically run units. The model of organization is that of concentric circles.”

        * http://www.agreatsupervisor.com/articles/lessons.htm
        * http://www.theguardian.com/business/2003/apr/27/theobserver.observerbusiness7
        * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maverick_(book)

  8. Paul Klipp

    Of course you can’t change a culture directly, but then, you can’t heat water directly. However, you can use a tool, like fire, to heat water in a way that is consistently reliable enough that one might reasonably say, “I’m heating water” when in reality it’s the fire that’s heating the water.

    By the same token, there’s a whole discipline in anthropology that studies directed culture change. It’s that discipline that has yielded tools and techniques which can be used to change behaviors and beliefs over time. You don’t see it that much in business, because most directed culture change work by anthropologists is aimed at social issues like keeping inner-city kids out of gangs and discouraging dangerous sexual behaviors in communities with a high risk of AIDs, but that doesn’t mean that the same tools won’t work inside an artificial cultural group like a company. For the most part, those tools are the same ones Paweł refers to. They change the rules, the environment, behaviors and consequences of behavior. Additionally, education is a powerful tool for change.

    Culture is complex, and any culture change initiative can have unintended consequences, but I would never suggest that a culture change initiative would yield random results as Paweł believes. That’s the dubious realm of so-called “culture-hacking” which looks to my eyes (I’m an anthropologist) much like children playing with fire. Done sloppily, with no research design, theory, or feedback loops, such culture-hacking may appear or even be, random. But let’s not confuse children’s games with science.

    1. Scott

      Paul: As an anthropologist I’m glad you’re here! This conversation (and this industry) needs you. I’m familiar with some of the basics but I know for certain I am no expert.

      Grant McCracken, whose book Chief Culture Officer I linked to in the post, is the first name I think of for people applying anthropology concepts to corporations. I’d welcome other suggestions if you have them.

      1. Paul Klipp

        I haven’t read that book, but I know him from The Long Interview. I’m also inspired by what Genevieve Bell is doing at Intel and I’m eagerly awaiting the EU release of Sam Ladner’s new book on doing ethnography in organizations called Practical Ethnography. Personally, I was influenced by two of my professors, Dr. Larry Naylor (author of Culture and Change) and Dr. Ann Jordan (author of Business Anthropology).

  9. Anon

    I stopped reading after the first typo in the first paragraph.

  10. srinath ranga

    Wonderful rebuttal! So Thiel said X and so I will drop everything and just work on that. Somehow this is akin to the culture in many companies where you have a new program every quarter based on the whims of the Chief Executive. Glad Brian is working on the culture fit but the name dropping just seems a tad unnecessary if he were just to emphasize that culture is sometimes just doing the right thing. But those high priced Image Consultants gotta get paid right?

  11. Chevon

    Hi Scott,

    This frank post should be wheatpasted onto the walls of startups. Culture is more than a word or a creative way to attract good people. It is the influence of the most powerful members of a company. Full stop. What a fabulously candid post!



  12. Greg Petroff

    I find intention more valuable then values in helping to understand culture. Companies with strong intentions are likely to have a stronger unique and lasting cultural practices.

    1. Scott

      Are there many founders with bad intentions about their own organization? Every founder wants their company to have an awesome culture, despite how poorly they understand what culture is or how it works :)

      1. Michael Bernstein

        Plenty of founders have intentions for their company culture that primarily benefit the top management, or even just themselves, rather than the company, much less other stakeholders such as customers or employees.

        That said, I suppose someone like that would still describe a top-down culture based on desperation, fear, and frantic ladder-climbing as ‘awesome’ since it serves their needs just fine.

  13. Saurabh Hooda

    Do every startup (even if it’s 5 people team) has to consciously think about culture and take conscious steps to spread/assimilate the culture?
    I completely agree with your “CEO’s actual behavior … defines what the culture is”. So founders should behave howsoever they are (obviously learn, improve, iterate with time) and don’t worry about culture stuff at all?

    1. Scott

      The trap is thinking of culture as something separate and tangible, divorced from every day behavior. Talking about it and writing about it can help identify what the culture is, and establish the different ways people inside the same organization see it.

      It’s similar In the same way having corporate morale events does create morale, it only allows morale to be expressed.

  14. Terrie

    Thank you for a fine bit of critical thinking; I always feel uneasy when the word “culture” is thrown around like this. Chesky also asserts that families and tribes don’t require much process because there is “trust”. This simply isn’t true. In fact, I would guess that change moves much more slowly in groups with strong cultural connections, and the process actually permeates every aspect of day-to-day life. In my *extremely* limited experience of tribal-influenced culture, group decisions were made slowly and with much discussion, ritual and questioning of motives.

  15. Martha Garvey

    Really great–and actionable. I am paraphrasing from “Year Without Pants,” but I often think about your words about how in every meeting where bad behavior is happening, there is someone in the room with the power to stop it..and that defines your culture, what happens next.

  16. Mark Summerfield

    Surely the point of Chesky’s letter its not to provide a treatise on the workings of “culture”, corporate our otherwise?

    He is the CEO of a growing company, and the reason he writes letters to all staff is to lead that company in the direction he (and, presumably, the rest of the management team) believes it needs to go. Chesky doesn’t care whether “a shared way of doing something with passion” is a meaningful definition of culture generally. What he cares about is motivating his team – right now – to do what they do with passion, and in doing so to work together towards a shared goal.

    Similarly, Chesky doesn’t care whether the company can, or will, have the same culture in 100 years. What he cares about is giving his team – right now – a shared vision of a company that can grow and adapt and still be here in 100 years. He wants his team – right now – to see themselves as building the foundations of something that can last.

    Chesky is doing exactly what this article says he should be doing – he is being Chief Cultural Officer. An analysis of how effectively he is doing this would be interesting, but a critique of his take on “culture” seems a little unfair – because it is beside the point.

    To put it really simply, Chesky’s target audience is completely different from the audience for this blog. I found this article interesting, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t get the team at Airbnb leaping out of bed each morning, full of passion for building a great company! Chesky’s letter just might.

    1. Scott

      That’s a fine point. Following that point means that the only people who can evaluate this post are employees of the company, as they’re the only ones who have the context he wrote it for.

      The problem is he posted this internal email to the planet. That means he chose, for some reason, to believe there was value in this note for a general audience. Therefore at least part of his point was that he believed this post was valuable for the rest of us, including the commentary it would invite.

  17. John

    I’m surprised you didn’t highlight the statement that made me think he hadn’t a clue what he was writing about.

    “Ever notice how families or tribes don’t require much process? That is because there is such a strong trust and culture that it supersedes any process.”

    As so often these days, it’s an example designed to make a point (we’re a family) while ignoring the fact that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    1. Scott

      John: I had that sentence in my notes, but it didn’t make it into the post.

      I’d agree with him in that families that get along better, or to his point, have stronger cultures, don’t require as many official rules and procedures since they’ve willingly internalized many habits. But from every family, or tribe, I’ve ever known, there are always processes of some kind.

      There’s also the point that it requires great trust to agree to a process with someone. Who is going to pick me up after school? Who is going to pay the bills on time? Who will make sure there is food to eat? Who will wash the clothes so people have clean clothes to wear for school/work?To answer all of those questions reliably requires a kind of process, the question is whether people participate in it willingly and if the process effectively solves the problem.

      I gave him the benefit of the doubt there. I took him to mean that families or tribes with stronger cultures don’t require as many rules or procedures as ones that don’t. Where he was sloppy was the assertion that e

      1. John

        Not so many formal rules maybe, but there are surely myriad informal and societal ones and I’d suggest they determine the culture as much as they are determined by it.

  18. girlintheoffice

    I was employed by Airbnb and I never understood what the culture was about. I can definitely say that culture for Airbnb means buying expensive office furniture and invite semi-celebrities to their office parties. Another big party of their culture is the selfie, as well as selfies by twinsies (people who wear similar clothes in the office on the same day, either by chance or because the office manager decides this is the case). Airbnb also promotes a drinking culture (I hear the Dublin office even features a pub). Generally speaking the culture I have found in the office idolizes celebrities and money. I’m not sure what kind of culture they want to have as most jobs in the company have such high targets that not even outsourcing companies have. Plus the pay is generally below market rates.
    The problem here is not a problem of fucking up the culture. The real issue is that this company is a wolf in disguise, and with no culture at that! While other brands have no problem admitting they are making money while still offering most products for free and actually improving humanity, Airbnb is just flourishing at a time when most people can’t even afford to pay rent for a flat, or afford a decent holiday. Things are so bad that people need to share a flat with complete strangers to be able to go on vacation, or live in the city center, and by all means Airbnb keeps telling us this is cool. Mind you, if people have enough money to travel, they feel lonely and use Airbnb as a cushion to loneliness, or worse… All in all the company will self destroy at some point as the business model is not feasible, so I don’t particularly worry about the words of the CEO.

  19. J. B. Rainsberger

    This reminds me, oddly enough, of my time working at the CN Tower in Toronto. I never had a job before or since in tourism, so this experience sticks out in my mind for its unique (for me) feature: managers told us explicitly to do whatever we thought we needed to do to make a “guest”‘s (customer’s) visit wonderful. They did this during orientation training. In retrospect, they gave an incredible amount of trust to a bunch of 18-to-25-year-olds like us.

    More than this, they acted consistently with this perspective. Whenever a worker did something extraordinary for a guest, it naturally cost the company money. Sometimes a considerable amount of it. I rarely saw nor heard of a manager chastising a worker in public for doing this, and rarely did I see or hear of a manager even saying “no” to a worker’s request to do something for a guest. At most, the manager would first follow through on the worker’s promise/offer/request, then wait until after the dust had settled, to ask the worker to do things differently the next time. Any manager who violated this code didn’t last.

    So you’ve heard of asking forgiveness over permission; perhaps you’ve even had a manager tell you to work that way — at the CN Tower, at least in the late 1990s, that formed part of the “culture” of the organisation. I see two things that stick out: (1) this particular ‘core value’ involved managers trusting workers well before those workers had earned the trust; (2) the managers acted with near-perfect integrity.

    I’ve never worked anywhere else in the time since where I felt such a strong shared value. I’ve only felt that kind of togetherness with more than one other person involved a softball team and took years to develop.

    Now I wonder whether a worker at the CN Tower today would tell a similar story.

    1. Scott

      Thanks for sharing this informative anecdote. I know of similar stories in the early years of bars and restaurants, where the founders are willing to do what it takes to earn the reputation for their business that they want. The problems come later when it gets harder and harder to justify those expenses and there’s increasing pressure to earn returns based on the reputation of the past.

      In all cases, it’s how the people in power behave that drives things. There’s no way around it.

  20. Sean Crawford

    About the CN tower culture question, and “does it still exist?” I would guess not. I read somewhere that the culture at Hawthorne (The “Hawthorne effect”) no longer exists.

    One of the very best leadership books I ever read was about the culture set at Avis rent-a-car by CEO Robert Townsend, called “Up the Organization.” I am old enough to remember his advertising “We’re number two, but we try harder.” (Hertz was bigger) A good leader, Townsend got the company into the black in one year after it had been in the red for 12 or13 years. Last year I walked into the downtown Avis and found he was totally forgotten. And I’m sure the culture is back to mediocre…

    …Suddenly, regarding Scott’s words on people in power, I remember General Slim (Burma, WWII) remarking, “There are no bad regiments, only bad leaders.”

  21. joshua zhan

    Compared to the concrete source code, the corporate culture has been elusive to me. This post has enlightened me quite a bit. Thanks a bunch.

  22. Daniel S. Wilkerson

    I’m glad someone finally said that you should test values. I did this at, of all places, Google. The employment agreement they asked me to sign said that I had read the employee handbook. It turns out that they don’t have an employee handbook as such. They have a web page with the title “employee handbook” but it’s just links into the Google intra-net. When I asked a Google lawyer what is the employee handbook exactly, she said it was the whole Google intranet. Then she said “Sorry if that’s not clear enough but this seems to suffice for 99.9 percent of our employee population. If it does not for you, that’s a decision you need to make re where you work.” When I challenged Larry Page about this at a company-wide TGIF, he simply refused to answer. The lawyer he sent to talk to me after that (the boss of the previous lawyer) just told me to lie about something else. In my resignation letter email, I said Google should change it’s motto to “we never do evil but as a supposed good”; I think that’s a Ben Franklin quote, but I’m not sure as I can’t find a source for it.



    “How To Test The Value of Core Values:
    Can an employee say NO to a decision from a superior on the grounds it violates a core value?
    Try to imagine it. Would a cultural value from your corporate handbook ever be used in making an actual decision about actual work? If the answer is no, then the values are platitudes, or were written so generically that they’re easily overlooked or easily manipulated to justify just about anything (depending on your opinion, Google’s don’t be evil is either a good example or a bad one).”

    1. Dennis

      What exactly was the issue that you challenged? That the handbook was the whole intranet which is virtually impossible to read before signing the employment agreement? Did your resignation somehow have to do with this?

      1. Daniel S. Wilkerson

        Basically yes.

        This is not a situation where a friend is asking casually if you have read a wikipedia article. If I am signing a legal document, then the language has serious consequences, so it must be well-defined: if it is important enough to require me to sign that I have read something, then at the very least they can give me a well-defined document for me to read and say that I’ve read. Think about how straightforward it should be to hand someone a copy of an Employee Handbook, and yet they do not. Their intranet is huge and constantly changing and the ambiguity of signing that you have “read” that is clearly to the advantage of Google legally. This behavior is gross disrespect of the employee and, further, asking the employee to lie.

        Yes, I resigned rather than sign that I had read a document that does not exist. (Further they asked me to lie about another issue which I can detail if you like.) I argued with them for a few days, but when I realized that the Google in my mind, the happy company that does happy cool things for people and treats their employees with respect, does not exist, then I knew it was time to go. Everyone on my team was quite supportive and one of my friends from Berkeley apologized to me for what happened even though he had nothing to do with it. My manager asked me not to resign because he wanted to know that Google could still change; however I was so physically nauseated that I had to do it. It was my dream job and I cried when I quit. Further, I was so out of money at the time that my friends were paying my bills. While telling this story to one of my friends, he listened stoically throughout, even while I explained that therefore he was going to have to keep paying my rent; his reply was simply “I’m just wondering who plays me in the movie about this.”

        However, after I resigned this story goes further. The same friend of mine attends the Commonwealth Club in SF. He read that Chief People Officer Laszlo Bock was being interviewed, so he asked me to come and during question and answer to ask Bock if Google employees are required to lie to work at Google. I was the first to ask a question. When the cameras were on, he was very pleasant and said that of course people are not required to lie to work at Google and he would speak with me after the interview. Well I waited after the interview until everyone in the audience had finished talking with him one-on-one. He then started to leave the room while surrounded by his assistants. I asked him repeatedly if he wanted to speak to me as he had said in front of the room that he did. He pretended to not hear me.

        Then I started yelling at him in Hungarian (Laszlo is a Hungarian name); he was so surprised that he forgot to ignore me and suddenly turned and looked at me. I asked him in Hungarian if he wanted to talk to me further; he said it was rude to be speaking a language other than English but I got no more answers out of him. I thought, well, at least when the interview and Q&A session plays on the radio the public will hear my question, but when I listened to it on the radio my question and his answer had been deleted entirely. So much for the press being the champion of the little guy.

  23. Alex

    The most important thing is not to be too harsh with your own people. It’s good to ask more from them, but also show them results, and acknowledge their work.

    1. okpmem

      “How power is distributed has a primary role in defining culture.”

      This is the single most important statement in the article. Being concious of the power structures is critical in understanding an organization and how it functions.

      Most power structures are not legitamate and we unfortunately placate to them as though they are.

      Unfortunately most people spend their day in a totalitarian type organizational structure where they have orders barked to them. Even in the tech world.

      We need to start democratizing all the organizations in our lives. Why is democracy an ideal for the government but not in the organizations we spend most of our time in?

  24. Deborah L.

    Very engaging and I love to see a good takedown of corporate/Silicon Valley horse manure. Also reminds me I need to get busy writing a blog post on “The Passion for ‘Passion'” and why it’s nothing but a vacuous buzzword.

  25. Peter Spear


    I am a huge admirer of Grant McCracken and thought it worth mentioning that the culture of which his book speaks (and for which he is an unparalleled advocate) is consumer culture, not corporate or organizational culture. He speaks beautifully about organizations learning to “breathe culture in, and breathe culture out” in order to compete.

    It’s a bit like the rise in the use of the term “social listening” which is actually reading. In both cases the focus turns inward and away from the actual market, which I think is unfortunate.

  26. Shane


    Interesting read, but I quibble with your definition of culture. To give us the appropriate amount of humility (which is sadly lacking in most) we need to understand that culture is related to intelligence and groups of organisms, not humans. It has been shown that several animals demonstrate culture, most notably Orcas. Culture is simply a set of behavior in any population of sentient beings. To imply it is only part of humanity is wrong and helps to persist the idea that we are special because of what we are instead of who we are.


    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Shane. Not a quibble at all – I agree with you. In this context it was enough work to express the diversity of human culture beyond the entrepreneurial so I didn’t think it advantageous to go further.

      Arguably some species have more advanced, or civilized, cultures in some ways than we do.

  27. Mark Littlewood

    Nice piece. Shocked to learn that culture isn’t a pool table and beer on Friday!

    Best explanation I have heard of what culture is:

    Culture is the sum of the behaviours we encourage and the behaviours we discourage.

    By definition, it cannot be messed up, it just is. Whether founders like it or not.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Mark. As shocked as you and I aren’t, it does seem many very smart founders still believe in the pool table theory :)

  28. Selvakumaran Krishnan

    Diving deep into the discourse on workplace culture, this critique navigates the nuances of this post. Thought-provoking perspectives unfold, making it an indispensable read for culture enthusiasts.



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