04/18/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

The Delusion of Corporate Culture

The Muppet Spring has passed. And the uproar accompanying Greg Smith's "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs" has died down. After a short jolt, Goldman's stock price has snapped back to normal. Somehow, Goldman's employees have returned to their phones. It's almost like they're unaware that their leaders had supposedly quit caring about ideas, clients, and integrity.

With his essay, Smith spray painted the board room, and dashed out with a final paycheck. But not before blaming this invisible hand called "culture." As if. You see, I don't put much stock in culture these days. Maybe that's because it's so ingrained that I don't notice it anymore. Or, maybe it's because culture is all hype.

Don't believe me. Look around your office. How many people can explain your mission? Besides your sales team, how many can outline the value proposition of your key products? How many could pick your top five clients out of a line up? I'm betting half -- if you're lucky. Outside of crises and bonus time, how many really pay attention when your CEO speaks? Even less. Just for kicks: Ask your employees to describe your culture. You'd probably have the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach! Sorry, Greg. Goldman Sachs is probably held together with duct tape, string, and spit more than culture, no different than anywhere else.

Of course, company elites -- with whom only a few have direct contact -- believe they set the culture. They pay homage to culture at their meetings. They probably believe such talk is actually work. But it has as much impact on the real world as an all-night bull session. Most employees are too busy with tasks to see the big picture, let alone immerse themselves in a trickle down culture. If you step into a Goldman Sachs office, you'll probably encounter the same realities as anywhere else. Employees are pulled in every direction, racing to catch up, and trying to make sense of the latest surprises. Their bad decisions likely stem less from cultural conditioning and callousness and more from exhaustion and execution. Like everyone, they just want to get back to their real lives: their loved ones, communities and interests.

Sure, elites set direction and expectations in any company. But do you really think their people are pointing in one direction? Ha! In the end, most leaders are herding and pulling, not being carried towards the promised land. Sure, culture truly guides some companies (Right, Zappos?). In most, it is a backseat driver, that voice you tune out while you do real work.

Certainly, it's comforting to picture Goldman Sachs as a cultural boogeyman, a top-down monolith where everyone is in agreement and fully aware of everything going on around them. In reality, even the best organizations are transient and messy, unsure who they are and where they're going. Subcultures bubble up and dissolve. Rivalries splinter groups and individuals.

People triumph. Initiatives quietly die. No, companies aren't one happy, predictable family sharing the same values and agenda. And if there is a culture, you won't find it on a mission statement. You'll find it with the rank-and-file, with all their muscles and warts, hopes and delusions. In this economy, they're bonded together more by the desire to hold onto what they have than any abstract ideals.

What's more, employees come-and-go, paying lip service to cultural norms, often oblivious to values and mission. Like lapsed Catholics at Easter, they perform the rituals, often without knowing their true significance anymore. They just do it because it's what others do. It's all one big act. By adulthood, most employees are who they'll ever be -- and cultural forces will change little. These forces either encourage employees' natural tendencies -- or drive them underground. When push comes to shove, it is nature-and-nurture, not culture, that dictates how employees ultimately act. By the time you frame it, culture is just a snapshot of a moment that's already passed.

And that's where Greg Smith's essay falls apart. He defined Goldman Sachs by the behaviors of malignant sect and packaged them as the company culture. From London, he attributed the same level of familiarity, understanding, and commitment to cultural values to thousands of employees. But those few employees he describes seem no different than teenagers, prancing around like Scarface knockoffs and bragging about "ripping eyeballs out" and "getting paid."

These clowns sound more like posers than pirates. But their co-workers indulged them, rationalizing their behavior as none of their business. As a result, everyone at Goldman Sachs, top-to-bottom, got a black eye.

Culture, like patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Greg plastered his views in The New York Times. They were certainly entertaining! But his essay wasn't about a critique of culture. It was a caricature. Sadly, his characterizations, more than that concept we call culture, is what unites everyone at Goldman Sachs now.