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)

12 Replies to “Apparently, Organizational Culture is Crap”

  1. The 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

    Heh. And I think you’re right .. fundamentally, not top-down nor bottom-up .. rather, a classic case of both/and, two-way, etc.

    Your post reminds me of an incident from a decade ago, which I recounted in a FB comment earlier today. Just a sec …

    Ah, here it is …

    It’s 2002, I’m sitting in a client’s office as he is off getting coffee, and I’m perusing the bookshelf. I pick out a book on leadership or organizational effectiveness stuff written by Warren Bennis, start briefly skimming the first few ages. Then, I look at the flysheet. It was published in 1977, 25 years earlier. When my client comes back, I say “You know, this book could have been published last week .. same stuff, same issues as back then”. He agreed. I’m also willing to bet that at the core, I could still say the same thing today, another decade on. Goodness, there’s a lot of inertia to the mental models, basic structures and usual dynamics of organizations in today’s world, notwithstanding all the hype about “social business” etc.

  2. Sorry, couldn’t help myself ..

    “It’s people working with people.”

    Sorta pretty much an ongoing negotiation-focused-on-purpose of a dynamic two-way flow of power & authority etc.

  3. Dan, it’s always good to hear from someone who is practising in the field rather than purely speaking theoretically. Jon Husband’s comment about the Warren Bennis book is spot on – too much is being written about organizational culture which is purely theoretical. I’m looking forward to reading Flat Army which has been recommended by my colleague Tarik Taman. I’m hoping the lessons in it will mean (if you don’t mind me saying} that it becomes obsolete within a decade.

  4. @Ara – thank you for your kind words. And I wholeheartedly agree … I’d like nothing more than for Flat Army to become obsolete, albeit in the next 2-3 years and not 10. 😉 (one can hope, right?)

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

    Interesting….Last year at a complexity conference we presented a NetLogo agent-based model on the “spread” of culture through an organization and found it acted as a meme, or idea that changes behavior and propagates itself. Our preconceived bias was that culture could be spread from the top down. We even set up the parameters of the model to follow that assumption. To our surprise, we found that in thousands of iterations of the model that was not the case! In order to spread, it needed support across the spectrum of organizational roles.

  6. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful piece about culture that, to me, stands out from all the recent noise about org culture. I’ve been noticing a counter-movement to the proliferation of culture espousals that criticizes the use of culture to justify and cement the status quo. An important observation for sure, but the tendency to discard culture terminology is a baby with the bathwater kind of move. In my opinion.

    The conception of org culture as the org immune system is a wonderful and instructive metaphor. Internally, I’ve been trying on the idea that our culture principles are guidelines for how the people of the organization work together and communicate together. And, yeah, we’ve got some slides about our culture and principles. 🙂 The challenge we’ve been working on is calibrating definitions of what our culture principles look like ‘on the ground.’

    A few of my favorite quotes from the piece that resonate most with my experience:

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

    “(Org culture is) people working with people.”

    Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  7. Amid a series of layoffs that managed to stay under 100 ppl so as to not hit the media, a director who had just left the company on his own accord called employees from his ex and vp team to find out how they were all doing. Immediate directors called the ex-director telling him to mind his own business, and the reason the layoffs happened a month after he left was because they knew he would try and stop them and want to help relocate the employees within the company. It’s sad to see and know that this is happening, that direct leaders can be such, for lack of any better words to use, nimkompoops. Ke sara sara. One day the immediate leadership will be impacted by the same lack of empathy and disdainful leadership, seems as if they don’t see it coming!

  8. @Russ – I would looovvveeee to see that study. 🙂

    @Alicia – thank you so much. I’m a firm believer in creating a leadership philosophy (model) that incorporates the opinions of your employees … with behaviours (attributes) defined at particular levels so everyone knows what is expected of one another. I agree with your use of the word ‘guidelines’ … fab.

    @Afsheen – OMG, what an awful story. But, sadly, far too common. Hopefully this wasn’t your organization. If so, hang in there … or get out!

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