There are lots of successful companies with lousy work culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a favourite cliché of management thinkers, but it’s not true

Workers walking among a huge warehouse of shelves at an Amazon warehouse

Amazon workers at a warehouse in Germany in 2014. Being a notoriously bad place to work hasn’t slowed Amazon’s massive growth. (Sean Gallup/Getty)

Mark Fields, the president of Ford, once hung a large sheet of paper in a boardroom where he was planning a major overhaul of the car company. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” it read.

Those five words have become the go-to aphorism for tech execs and business columnists seeking to explain the success or failure of a particular enterprise. The phrase asserts that regardless of how brilliant its products, no company will flourish if its employees don’t embrace a communal set of values and behaviours.

It’s a lovely notion, but it ignores the companies that succeed without regard to employee morale or engagement. Dish Network, a U.S. satellite-TV provider, saw 37% growth in its stock price in 2012—the same year it was ranked the worst place to work in the United States by the online site 24/7 Wall St. Employees complained of “mandatory overtime” and no holidays. While Amazon is often lauded for its business tactics, its median employee tenure is one year. And when ride-sharing service Uber faced scandals last fall—including an executive openly mulling spying on journalists—some questioned whether the startup would survive its dysfunctional culture. Yet Uber is now valued at US$40 billion, with the criticism doing little to stall its growth.

A strong culture undoubtedly bolsters a good strategy. But a great idea can survive in a hostile environment.