The Ten Truths of Real Culture, Part 1

Culture is too important to not get it right. If you mistake the fake factors for real culture, then you will not address the underlying beliefs and assumptions that truly drive culture.
Last week we were talking with the president of a large public company. Although he believed in the value of culture, he wasn’t sure how to explain it to his key leaders. He asked for a simple definition to share. Truth #1 is for John, and all leaders who want a non-academic way to explain culture.

  1. Culture is how you are expected to behave, and comes from shared beliefs through common learning. Ideally these “unwritten rules” correspond to the stated values and beliefs of the organization.  Many leaders say they want an innovative culture where people are free to take risks, try things and make mistakes. But if a team member is publicly chastised by the leader – what kind of culture is being created? The team member learns that he will be humiliated if he makes a mistake. So next time there is an opportunity to take a risk, he will apply what he learned and avoid it. This is why the second truth is essential for leaders to understand…
  2. Culture is a leadership responsibility (not owned by HR, or a culture team.) While everyone plays a part in creating culture — that’s why it’s about shared learning and mutual understanding — leaders set the tone. It’s fascinating how often a leader’s words and actions are unintentionally out of sync. An executive we were coaching was in a meeting with over a dozen attendees. The person leading the meeting was not well prepared and hadn’t set clear objectives. This leader got frustrated with the time that was being wasted and the lack of productivity. So she took over the meeting, and made sure that the needed outcomes were achieved. Unfortunately, those actions had unintended consequences. The team member didn’t learn how to improve, he learned that if he didn’t do it the right way someone else would do his job. Instead of stepping up, next time he’ll step back.
  3. Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced. Imagine that you are in a meeting, and you believe that it’s polite to say, “bless you” when someone sneezes. Someone sneezes and you are the only one to say, “bless you.” You’ve just learned that with this group of people, that is not the correct behavior. No one had to teach this to you, it’s learned through observation and experience. Leaders can talk about their ideal culture, but it’s only through shared learning and consistent action that culture gets created.
  4. Culture exists at many levels. While it’s true that there is an overall organizational culture, there are also sub-cultures. These exist at department, business unit, divisional and even team levels. This is why culture is complicated. Various groups have shared experiences and learn to behave in specific ways.
  5. Culture change is possible but not easy. If you think about culture as organizational habits, it helps you see that these consistent patterns of behavior that are learned over time don’t change just because a new set of values gets rolled out! Think about how hard it is for you to change a habit. Now imagine that multiplied by all the employees in an organization. We use the culture roadmap to guide the process of change.
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