Can Company Culture Be Too Strong?

Written for EO by Jackie Roberson, writer.

In many companies corporate culture is never explicitly defined, but rather implied. It shows up in the way that employees interact with each other, the way they dress and maintain their work areas, the hours they work, and how they conduct business with the outside world. Culture is defined through the satisfaction of the employees and the clients, the way the office is set up, and the benefits offered to employees.

In short, everything about the experience of working for the company falls under the umbrella of culture and is usually determined in large part by the company leadership and the values, mission, and vision of the organization.

Creating a strong company culture has become a priority for many leaders over the last decade or so. The online retailer Zappos is often held up as an example of having a solid culture, with the notion that the company culture is what drives the excellent customer service that the brand is known for. By creating a strong company culture, and getting all employees to buy in to that culture, everyone is committed to pulling the cart in the same direction and working hard to meet the company goals.

But what happens when the company culture is too strong? It is possible that by creating an environment driven by a particular set of goals, priorities, and values, organizations can actually do more harm than good. Some researchers have even noted that certain companies have actually veered into cult territory in their efforts to develop a solid company culture, venturing away from voluntary buy-in and into the realm of control. If your company is going to great lengths to control the thinking and behavior of employees, it’s possible that your culture is becoming too strong, and it’s time to reel it back in.

The Hazards of a Cultish Culture

You might be wondering what could possibly be wrong with a strong company culture. After all, some of the companies that are well-known for having strong cultures, like Microsoft and Zappos, are doing exceptionally well.

For more on creating a successful culture, check out these other Octane articles. 

And there are definitely benefits to having a well-established, healthy culture. The problems typically begin when the culture becomes the defining aspect of everything employees do, and the basis of all decisions. This can cause multiple issues, including:

  • Stifled creativity. Exceptionally strong cultures have a tendency to engender homogeneity within the organization. New and creative ideas may be stifled in favor of ideas that are more in line with the established norms. If your employees all think alike because that’s “the way things are done here,” they are all going to solve problems alike, meaning that creative solutions and ideas may be stifled. Ultimately, this limits growth.
  • Talent recruitment issues. Would you rather hire someone who is immensely talented, but isn’t a great fit culturally, or someone who fits in with the culture, but needs time to grow and develop their skills? Unfortunately, in many companies with strong cultures, the latter is the often the case. Companies that are rigidly tied to their culture often choose employees based on “fit,” thereby losing out on talented employees who could do great things for the company. This doesn’t mean that you should throw your cultural expectations out the window when hiring, but that some flexibility can lead to a more diverse, more successful team.
  • Poor decision-making. Some company cultures are relentlessly positive, to the point where all negative thoughts are repressed. This can actually have a detrimental effect on your employees and their performance. While positive thinking is desirable, it’s impossible for anyone to remain positive all the time, and not allowing your team to have some moments of negative emotions can cause excess stress, poor decision-making, and poor negotiation skills. Encouraging positive thinking is good. Forbidding anything even remotely negative? That’s dangerous.
  • Little risk taking. Risk is important to success. Without risk, there isn’t reward. However, a company culture that encourages specific behaviors, and discourages risk taking, is likely to be detrimental. Employees are unlikely to do anything that doesn’t align with the company culture, which may lead to lost opportunities.
Keeping Culture Healthy, Not Overwhelming

All of this isn’t to say that you should not work to establish a company culture. However, you need to take care that your culture doesn’t become so entrenched that it hurts the business. Encourage creative thinking, dialogue, and responsible risk taking.

Value talent as much as you do cultural fit, and allow certain aspects of the corporate culture to develop organically, not by forcing employees to think and behave a specific way. When you do, you’ll have a more authentic culture—and a more successful organization.

Jackie is a content coordinator and contributor who writes on technology, home life, business management and education. 


Categories: Company Culture


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