Beware the Culture Dilettante

While reading a magazine this past weekend, I came across an unfamiliar word: dilettante. It’s defined as a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject in a halfhearted, superficial way. Since I have the vocabulary of a high schooler, it immediately made me think of the term “poser.” I decided to expose my embarrassing vocabulary deficit because this newfound word struck a major cord with me: It perfectly describes the unfortunate truth I’ve witnessed at companies whose leaders have an inauthentic or incomplete commitment to developing a positive and strategic culture.

My guess is we’ve all come across someone or someplace in our careers that talks a big game about culture but doesn’t back it up with actions. For the sake of this short blog, let’s use the lens of a job seeker evaluating the culture at a potential employer. Here are 5 questions she might ask to uncover whether its leaders are truly invested in the culture or are just culture dilettantes in disguise.

How is performance evaluated?

This is really the key question. Nearly every company talks about their values, but if they aren’t a part of the performance management process, and people aren’t held accountable to them, it’s unlikely they have full organizational commitment behind them. Basically, if performance evaluation is only based on your results, with no attention paid to how those results are achieved and/or how people support the success of others, beware.


What will get me promoted here? What will keep me from getting promoted here?

Similar to the performance management process, the answer to these questions will tell you a lot about the leaders of the organization. Do people get promoted because they are great at developing and inspiring others? Or do the best individual contributors just become the next layer of management. Similarly, will the organization prevent the promotion of an employee who shows lack of commitment to its values? If so, that’s a really good sign people take the culture and espoused values very seriously.


When was the last time you were meaningfully recognized for your work? What were you recognized for?

This is especially critical if recognition is important to you. Even if not, knowing what people get recognized for is one more way to check for alignment between the values that hang on the wall, the culture the website claims to promote, and the actual day-to-day behaviors in the organization. What gets rewarded and recognized gets repeated. And if someone tells you they can’t remember the last time they were recognized, that’s probably an even greater reason for concern.


Can you give an example of when leadership made a really challenging business decision primarily because it aligned with the organization’s culture or values?

This one is a bit trickier, but a good example here is perhaps the best sign that culture really matters. Leadership that is willing to make short term sacrifices in order to preserve organizational values and set the right tone is clearly demonstrating its commitment to culture. Additionally, this likely means that leaders are transparent about tough decisions, and communicate to employees that decisions are made based on the company’s culture or values. These are telltale signs that you’ve got committed leaders in place and the culture is far more than lip service.


What action was taken from your last employee survey?

The response you get will offer a big insight on whether there is open dialogue between leaders and the frontline, if the employee voice valued is enough to trigger action, and which cultural “pain points” the leadership is paying attention to. Surveys aren’t a magic bullet for culture change, but how leaders use and act on survey feedback is an incredibly strong indicator of the influence of culture, and whether leaders view employees as partners or peons.

It takes a great deal of commitment from leaders and organizations to truly commit to making culture and values a priority, but the good news is, there’s a huge payoff. Firms with performance-enhancing cultures have been shown to experience 4x revenue growth and 9x stock price growth compared to those without strong cultures.

So if you’re a leader reading this, you should probably ask all of these questions about your own organization—on a regular basis—to make sure your company is using culture to its competitive advantage and telling culture dilettantes that it’s time to get real.


Author: David Shanklin 

David is Managing Director, Culture Solutions at CultureIQ. For over a decade, he has helped companies and workers reach their full potential,
with a special focus on organizational culture and leadership.