July 2, 2013

Apparently, Organizational Culture is Crap

marsThe one thing we can be assured of until humans safely land and colonize Mars is “organizational culture” will continue to be a topic of conversation. It’s about on par with the Leadership vs. Management debate — as John Kotter rehashed earlier in 2013 — but I’ll save my thoughts on that meme for another day.

Google returns over 22 million hits when you search the term “organizational culture”. You can even read what Google has to say about its own culture. You may find it interesting to know, for example, that they “strive to maintain the open culture often associated with startups.” Almost 10 years has passed since Google filed their S-1 IPO papers where they stated, “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.” That sounds like a pretty good starting point of organizational culture to me.

But what really is organizational culture?

Cheryl Morris, a Director of Marketing at Nanigans introduced me to something on the HBR Blog site I had never heard of before: culture decks. In her piece entitled, “Why Executive Teams Shouldn’t Write Culture Decks” Cheryl tries to explain a culture deck — a series of slides that depicts your organization’s culture to the outside world — should not be created by an executive because “genuine culture is organic, not imposed” and “culture is not our mission statement or how our teams are structured.”

It’s a tad naïve and somewhat myopic to start-up only mentality, but in essence what Cheryl is trying to state (I think) is executives might be out of touch with the ‘real’ culture of the organization and thus it should come from the actual people of the organization not outfitted with a fancy title or position. Although culture decks are cute, the real issue is why we believe the divide between employees and senior leadership is akin to “No Man’s Land” in the battlefields of World War I.

I then stumbled upon a tweet by Twitter quote machine Vala Afshar, Chief Customer Officer and CMO at Enterasys, which quite frankly surprised me:


It’s not that I disagree, per se, given levels of employee disengagement and disillusionment in our organizations of today. It’s that the tweet was written in the first place. Is this what organizational culture has come to? Have we taken liberties from Hugh MacLennan’s literary masterpiece and written “Two Solitudes for the Organization“?

I’m one of those practicing pundits / futurists that thinks (and practices) a fair bit about organizational culture.

I also wrote a book that delves a fair bit into this topic. In the Flat Army central thesis, organizational culture is defined by one criterion, and one only:

“An organization’s culture is defined by the manner in which employees are treated by their direct leader.”

I go on further and write, “treat your people and your team members like a tool, a number or a subordinate, and you can merrily look forward to an organizational culture replete with apathy, disengagement and insubordination.

Put another way, if an organization’s culture is left to be defined (and actualized) by the employees when their leader isn’t in the room, you don’t have an organizational culture that is healthy, engaging or productive. In fact, you end up with factions and thus organizational culture camps. You end up with two solitudes. This is just as bad as a top-down enforced and/or rigid culture.

Cheryl and Vala aren’t wrong in their aforementioned assertions … but simply letting it continue as it has been for decades isn’t cool either.

immuneMichael Watkins conducted a LinkedIn discussion earlier in 2013 entitled “What is organizational culture? How can we help newly-hired leaders learn about cultures and integrate more efficiently and effectively?” There were some fascinating and enlightening responses, not the least of which was Michael’s own observation that culture is “the organization’s immune system.”

If there is an unhealthy and closed or extremely hierarchical culture, the immune system maintains its unhealthiness. The white blood cells are helpless. The employee (perhaps our white blood cells metaphor) might try to battle the bugs in the bloodstream but they will be unsuccessful in rooting out the existing malady. Put another way? The organization on the whole will remain disengaged or disenfranchised no matter what pharmaceutical medicine is applied. Thus, the organizational culture will remain laughable under the banner ads of “Two Solitudes“.

Organizational cultures in need of shifting, improving and changing toward a more open and collaborative one doesn’t have to start at the top of the hierarchy. The change might very well commence from the employee base. But if an organization’s culture is defined (as is my thesis) by the manner in which employees are treated by their direct leader, it (the engaged and connected culture) must be upheld and continuously demonstrated by senior leadership across the organization so that:

  • all employees, regardless of rank, fully appreciate how important culture is to its success;
  • everyone can trust one another to do what’s right, backed by both the culture and leaders;
  • the entire organization can drive business results in a more open, inclusive and engaging manner. (yes, through its culture)

Organizational culture is not top down. Organizational culture isn’t bottom up either.

Organizational culture isn’t solely for employees and it certainly isn’t solely for leaders or managers.

If done effectively, organizational culture is one solitude not two. It happens together, harmoniously, built and honed by all and in hopes of participating in one singular working framework.

Anyone should be able to write the ‘culture deck’. And culture should happen both when the ‘manager’ is in the room and when she isn’t. Perhaps that’s where I inadvertently take umbrage with Vala and Cheryl.

We must break the divide between employees and senior leadership once and for all. We must deconstruct two solitudes into one. We must — as a singular organism and organization — become both the white and red blood cells as we harmoniously develop an improved immune system.

It’s not us against them.

It’s not employees versus management.

It’s not hierarchy washed away by anarchy or heterarchy.

It’s people working with people.


“If the washroom isn’t good enough for the people in charge, then it’s not good enough for the people in the store.”

Lord Marcus Sieff (1913–2001), British president of Marks & Spencer
From A Passion for Excellence (Tom Peters and Mary Austin, 1985)

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