Let’s Be Frank: The “Myths” of Company Culture

By Inspector Frank. December 29, 2022

“It’s better to be safe 100 times than to be killed once.”

Mark Twain has been widely misquoted over the years. Even when he was alive, he was attributed with quotes that he claimed weren’t his. Some have really stuck. One that I keep seeing in safety talks is the quote above. Great quote, but Mark Twain did not say it.

Now, why does this matter? Well, sometimes, factual information is critical to what you are trying to accomplish, and other times anecdotal information is just what is needed. What do I mean? Well, bear with me a little and I will explain my reasoning.

I mentioned in the last article that the simplest way company culture can be defined is “how you do what you do in the workplace.”

I mean, in one way that works as a definition; but when I look at it again, I think it is a little misleading and oversimplified. What a company’s culture is can be defined in drastically different ways, depending on whom you are talking to.

There is the official culture which is based on procedures, mission statements, corporate goals, etc. But there is another significant and sometimes governing source of culture that is unofficial. This is where the anecdotal stories, or myths, can carry much weight.

What do I mean? Well, consider as a starting point that military units use stories to create myths and legends all the time as a means to influence culture. Sometimes this is officially done, sometimes unofficially. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  1. The phrase “Retreat Hell” has been the motto of one of the Marine Corps’ most-decorated infantry battalions, the 2d Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, and has long served as a motivational quote to inspire Marines past and present. This commemorates the words of Captain Lloyd Williams, a company commander with the Battalion during its first combat action at Belleau Wood in 1918. When ordered by a French major to retreat, Captain Williams responded, “Retreat? Hell! We just got here!” This story is very useful for setting the culture of new recruits coming to the unit. It quickly sets that there has been a long precedence of “mission over self” and “do not surrender.” It also assists in setting a level of cocky abandon that can be useful when preparing men to go to war. This is an officially sanctioned story that definitely plays a role in the culture of the unit.
  2. A similar story is found in the British Parachute Regiment but is not official (like becoming the assigned unit motto) as in the example above. It is also not historically backed up by the unit logs but instead comes out of interviews with the troopers that were there. During WW2, the British Airborne was tasked with seizing the bridge at Arnhem (as captured by the book and movie A Bridge Too Far). When things went sideways and ground forces were not able to link up with them in a timely manner, their situation became untenable. At one point the Germans sent a soldier out under a white flag to lay out the terms for a British surrender. The British CO told Major Digby Tatham-Warter to tell them to “go to hell.” Major Digby instead responded “We haven’t got the proper facilities to take you all prisoner! Sorry!” The confused German soldier tried to get clarification and was told by the Major: “We’d like to, but we can’t accept your surrender! Was there anything else?”

These stories help build a type of “corporate” culture within the units they represent. They have apparently been slightly exaggerated at various times in order to help build and maintain a culture of “no surrender.” This starts building up a culture of completing the mission or task at all costs.

These stories are quite honestly myths at this stage, but useful ones. So, in terms of culture, the official and unofficial stories we tell can be important to our organization, especially in terms of the culture of our workplaces.

Does this actually happen in the corporate world? You bet it does -- and in all kinds of ways, big and small.

Let’s look at some examples I have seen, and you probably have as well.

  1. “Get ‘er done”: There is a series of stories I have heard working around various work groups that glorify the get things done at all costs attitude. Have you ever worked in a place where the pipefitters brag about the guy who got the job done “on black ops” in a night that would have taken weeks to get done if the right safety procedures and processes had been followed? Or another variant is the leaking valve that would bring the unit down to fix in the right way being “corrected” the next day? These myths create a culture where keeping production running is what is important, and we are glorifying those that do not “waste time” on something as frivolous as safety…
  2. “Get ahead at all costs”: These are stories I hear in some management circles that tend to glorify the guy or gal that puts themselves ahead of others and “wins” by putting one over the boss, or corporate. They tend to be told in grudging tones. It seems to me that if this is the case in your work environment, then the corporate culture is not one of unity at all, but one of “get them before they can get you.”
  3. “Leadership is incompetent” or doesn’t care about the employees or is abusive. This is a variation of the narrative in point #2 above. Again, this screams of an unofficial company culture that is not good for promoting a quality work environment.
  4. “The regulators are yahoos”: Pulling one over on them is needed because they will just cause a headache and waste time. You have probably run into this cultural myth as well. It tends to be very common. My issue with this one is that, while it promotes the idea that your company personnel really know what they are doing, it also promotes breaking the rules which is a slippery slope.
  5. “Codes aren’t important to follow all of the time; we know better”: This can fit into that normalization of deviation I wrote about in a previous article. It again can also lead to the outright breaking of rules that are actually important.

I am sure you can think of more examples, as can I, but I think you get the idea.

Some of the above anecdotal sources of culture can also lead to the normalization of illegal or unethical behaviors. That is a culture that you do not want and that can be hard to undo once it exists.

Now, as I mentioned above, a company will try to officially set and control its culture. Here are a few examples:

  1. Corporate mission statements. Although these don’t work if leadership isn’t engaged with them and using them to build employee relationships throughout the organization. I have worked in many companies where for most people, the corporate goals were not considered their problem. If you want to connect people to a purpose, you have to “walk the walk” so to speak.
  2. Employee recognition. Probably one of the most common is through safety programs. Although again, if you are just rewarding years of service with no injury, is the culture you have created actually about safety? Or is it about not reporting anything that can be swept under the carpet?
  3. Corporate buzzwords. Think of things like “questioning attitude.” Now, don’t get me wrong, a questioning attitude is the most important thing in our world of “Guarding the Gates.” However, it is one thing to say this at every meeting while at the same time management shuts down questions about anything and everything that they don’t want people digging into. You first have to have a pretty open and trusting workplace before this becomes a workable means to set culture.

There are numerous other ways companies try to build their culture, which can be effective or ineffective depending on execution and depending on what else is driving the culture.

The problem is, as you have probably seen, is that when there is a big difference between the official narrative and the unofficial version, the unofficial tends to be a bigger driver of culture. And this can have big effects that companies tend to ignore when they are trying to change the status quo but they are also things that have to be considered if you are trying to change the culture for the better.

When I talked in the last article about trying to change culture through a reorganization you probably saw I have little regard for management consultants. Why? Well, one reason is that those management consultants you hire, unless they spend a lot of time with all of the workgroups at your facility or company, won’t know they have to counter these “unofficial” elements of the current culture. They may not even understand what the current culture is.

This can make their recommendations ineffective. This can also lead to the reorganizational disasters I spoke of where the reorganization will not be effective at changing the culture or bringing about the effects you may want.

But conversely, an understanding of this can lead to the creation of myths that can help change the culture for the positive.

Here is an example that I have seen in use. A company I worked for wanted to increase the safety culture and reduce incidents, as do most. What they started doing was focusing on stories when jobs got done right, quickly, and met all safety requirements. They used these stories as a counter to the “safety takes too much time” myth that used to be everywhere in our industry. You soon started seeing a push to streamline safety systems, rather than bypass them, as people wanted to use safety and be safe, just in the timeliest way possible.

Again, if you want to change your organization’s culture, you have to understand what drives the current culture. You can’t make good choices with bad data -- sort of like anything in the integrity world.

While the quote I started the article with is not actually attributed to Mark Twain, it has been used to try and modify the safety culture of many workplaces. If your workplace’s culture is being positively affected by a myth, then maybe sometimes legends can be more useful than facts.

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