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The Kool Aid Acid Test for Culture

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test was a book written by Tom Wolfe way back in the day. The Acid Tests were parties at which everyone takes LSD (which was often put into the Kool-Aid they served) to “abandon the realities of the mundane world in search of a state of [intersubjectivity]”. Wolfe presents a firsthand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who went around the US in the sixties.

This post title and my thoughts on it, considering the context of the book’s main premise, is a play on the words around how injecting too much culture (or doing it inauthentically) into the company Kool Aid is a bad thing. Let me explain further.

Many objectives I see for culture movements inside companies are focused on improving morale, increasing employee engagement and ultimately driving greater company success.

That’s probably an oversimplification but stick with me on this.

I define it thus because a lot of the time I see the related efforts that support the objectives as a way to gee up the troops so that things are constantly buoyant and positive. There’s probably a view that these states are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

It’s like you are injecting the Kool Aid bowl with a desire for positive, brilliant, brightly coloured outcomes.
That may do at times but for the most part I think this is more harmful than anything else. At least when it is inauthentic.

Besides, it starts to breed unrealistic views, bias (against those that don’t get it) and at worst, it blinkers people.

The acid test for authentic culture creation


Another play on words is on acid test. Below in a numbered list is what I think you need to be on the look out for to avoid problems with your culture efforts.

But first some caveats. I’m a little cynical and more introverted than otherwise and not naturally prone to excessive doses of outward shrill. I’m also based in Europe not America where the tendencies are recognised to be the opposite (no offense to my many US buddies). Finally, I’m in the [customer] success business which is naturally buoyant and enthusiastic (as am I at modest levels) but even I have limits on the extent to which you can unnaturally enthuse people.

  1. When company representatives are talking through things at companywide events and it feels like they are struggling through a script they don’t believe in, its probably true and you are on the receiving end of a badly orchestrated culture promotion.
  2. Likewise when the enthusiasm for results is sky high but you know the actual results cannot possibly match the reality.
  3. When there is pressure to attend events and partake in the frivolity and you get the cold shoulder for not wanting to even when you cannot, i.e. you are strongly encouraged to make alternative plans.
  4. When thinking differently is frowned upon because it does not conform to the prevailing mood. For example, you voice a counter prevailing thought or question the strategy of the company and it gets talked down, dissed, ignored, etc. I’m not saying this shouldn’t happen in isolation if the thought is wrong but when you see it happening systemically.

I’m sure there are more cases or scenarios like those above. These are not terrible in and of themselves. I mean you could live with them in the case that things are going well with the company and you can otherwise carry out your work well and are successful in doing that.

It’s when these behaviours start becoming group think and adversely effecting the performance of the company and your own that the alarm bells should start ringing and you should run.

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