"There is now abundant evidence that culture makes a
difference to performance; we know that leaders increasingly need
concepts and tools for working with culture in varied and subtle ways”
Ed Schein The
Corporate Culture Survival Guide
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Articles - Leading Culture Change
Issue #12 CC E-News
Workplace Culture --
is & Why it Matters...
“We need to change the culture” is
a much-repeated management mantra on almost every leader’s lips these
days. Yet culture is notoriously difficult to change. It wins out time and
again over attempts to change it.
It sometimes seems so intangible, elusive and hard to
grasp. In frustration, some toss in the towel, dismissing culture as
one of those soft-issues that’s too fluffy and ephemeral to manage. Other
times, it gets discounted as a trivial side-show or distraction not
deserving of serious attention.
Research shows culture profoundly affects every facet of an organisation.
It determines what’s possible or not in an organisation. It’s arguably the
‘X’ factor in change success. Companies from Google to Virgin are quick to
trace their success to dynamic cultures that foster high levels of
commitment, innovation, employee satisfaction and identification with what
the firm is all about.
Great cultures are both talent-attracters
and retainers. Everyone wants to work there and they want to stay.
People often leave a place because they don’t fit in the culture
Constructive cultures help people
achieve, sparking-off higher levels of commitment and engagement.
Disengagement is epidemic at work, with huge indirect losses in
Exceptional cultures generate energy,
ideas and improvement – they create cohesion and help people get along
well, collaborate with each other, and stick together. Disgruntled,
de-motivated people drag down these things.
Most leaders are acutely aware how constructive
cultures help people perform – and equally aware how dislocated ones breed
under-performance. Leaders are often told ‘getting the culture right’ is
the most critical thing to focus on for sustainable results – and we
frequently define a great leader as someone turns a dysfunctional culture
Culture is also often the hidden factor in change success
too. For instance, change strategies that work in one organisation can
fall flat in another – and the variable is often culture. While there are
no magic bullets or quick-fixes, if you understand culture, and learn some
lessons about what seems to work and what doesn’t, then you have a chance
of changing it for the better.
"The big secret to our unique
Virgin culture is simple – there is no secret. We
just know that creating and maintaining our enviable culture is
all about infusing our core values into everything we do –
we get that right and the Virgin culture just flows. Our
culture is unique – we know it, we're proud of it and we
work hard to make it a reality."
So -- What
Makes Up Culture?
Culture is commonly described as “the way we do things
around here” but it’s much more than that.
Culture comprises things we have to know,
do, think and say in order to be accepted and identified as part of a
It’s the cryptic encoding that determines
how people co-exist, how they respond in various circumstances and how
they make sense of what happens and what is done. Culture’s the glue
holding everything else in organisations together
(Goffee and Jones 1996).
Put simply, it’s the sum total of everything that’s been
going on and continues to be ongoing in an organisation.
Ed Schein, long-time cultural
thinker, says culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions -
invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to
cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal
integration - that has worked well enough to be considered valid
and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to
perceive, think and feel in relation to these problems.”
Of course none of these general definitions really get at
the components that make up a culture. We often describe culture as a
‘cloth’ composed of many threads – myriad, complex interplays between
many, often unnoticeable, patterns of…
prevailing mental models, values, beliefs and tacit assumptions held
collectively that often operate unconsciously and define in a basic
‘taken for granted’ way, how we see the organisation, how we see
ourselves and how we see each other.
Behaving: the accepted behavioural rules resident in a
culture that govern the way people interact. These rules aren’t
usually explicitly stated but they’re implicitly, and again,
unconsciously followed anyway.
the stories, myths, legends, creeds, customs, rituals that store
meaning, create cultural identity, continually reinforce the
prevailing culture and deflect efforts to change it.
Feelings: the stream of underlying emotions people
most commonly experience, display, act out or hide that flow through
a culture, effecting how we treat each other, how we behave, how we
think and how satisfied, productive and happy we are at work.
The nature and quality of conversations we have that include how
open we are, how we handle disagreements, what topics can be
discussed and which are ‘undiscussable’.
Leadership: The style of
leaders, how this resonates with people and how their words and
actions are perceived by others.
The way people engage with and respond to change in their external
environment; how reactive or pro-active and how rigid or adaptive
the organisation is, in navigating political, environment, social,
and ‘futures’ contexts.
Cataloguing cultural components provides some markers to
measure culture against, but keep in mind it’s overly-simplistic. Taken
too literally, a components-approach can trick us into:
Thinking we can
grasp culture by breaking it down into basic elements or
culture can be easily controlled by simply adjusting or replacing parts
Culture isn’t a
machine you can just ‘fix’ or adjust. There isn’t a culture control dial
somewhere in your organisation to twiddle. While we all act to generate,
preserve, influence or change it, culture is an ephemeral entity that
isn’t inside anyone's particular sphere of control.
So what’s the
bottom-line on change and culture? As long as you get most of the same
outcomes, on balance it’s easier to change your change to suit the culture
if you can, rather than change the culture to suit your change. Often
though, culture itself is the major block to change success or survival so
you have to tackle it.
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