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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stop Blaming Your Culture

Alternatively, leaders may try to ignore their culture and act as if it isn’t important. But when overlooked, the hidden power of a company’s culture can thwart any leader’s strategic aspirations. No matter how many top-down directives you issue, they will rarely be executed, at least not with the emotional commitment and consistency needed to make them successful.

This is not to say that your existing culture is sacrosanct. Indeed, many companies need some kind of culture change. There are passive-aggressive cultures where people routinely fail to follow through on their agreements, creative but undisciplined cultures where talented people pull in different directions, and highly politicized bureaucratic cultures that must bear the expense of their heavy-handed management style.

But when you fight your culture head-on or ignore it altogether during a change initiative, you lose the chance of reviving some of the attitudes and behaviors that once made your company powerful — and might do so again. Several studies (including one conducted by Booz & Company and the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2004) suggest a correlation between financial results and a strong, inspiring organizational culture. The correlation is hardly surprising; after all, cultures influence and energize the behaviors that matter most. Procter & Gamble, Southwest Airlines, Apple, Tata, Starbucks, and FedEx are among the household-name companies noted for unique cultures that contribute significantly to their competitive advantage.

Fortunately, there is an effective, accessible way to deal with cultural challenges. Don’t blame your culture; use it purposefully. View it as an asset: a source of energy, pride, and motivation. Learn to work with it and within it. Discern the elements of the culture that are congruent with your strategy. Figure out which of the old constructive behaviors embedded in your culture can be applied to accelerate the changes that you want. Find ways to counterbalance and diminish other elements of the culture that hinder you. In this way, you can initiate, accelerate, and sustain truly beneficial change — with far less effort, time, and expense, and with better results, than many executives expect.

Edgar H. Schein, author of The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (rev. ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009) and a leading authority on organizational culture, tells a story that illustrates the unexpected leverage this approach offers. (See “A Corporate Climate of Mutual Help,” by Art Kleiner and Rutger von Post, s+b, Spring 2011.) Three senior executives of a large manufacturing company — the CEO, chief operating officer (COO), and head of organizational development — visited him, seeking advice on building a more dynamic culture. “Just yesterday,” said the COO, “I had my regular meeting with subordinates. We have a big circular room, and everybody sits in the same place each time. But get this — only four people were present this time, and they still sat at the far ends of this great big table. Do you see what I’m up against?”

“What did you do about it?” asked Schein.

The executives responded at first with blank stares. Then they realized they were part of the system they were blaming. The COO could have made a small but significant change simply by asking the four of them to move their chairs. Better yet, he could ask the full team to vary their seating at the next meeting. The executives spent the next several hours figuring out other minor actions of that sort, which they put in place the following week, with great success.

Myths of Culture Change

Why don’t corporate leaders naturally respond to culture in this productive way? Because of several myths about culture change that have become prevalent in the business world. Each of these assumptions leads to treacherous pitfalls.

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  1. Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (Sage, 2007): Solid introduction to Leon Festinger’s grand idea and its relevance to today’s conflicts.
  2. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (In)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results (Jossey-Bass, 2010): Integrating formal and informal measures (with more on the Aetna story).
  3. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, “Leading Outside the Lines,” s+b, Summer 2010: How StockPot, a division of Campbell’s Soup, used metrics to shift cultural behavior.
  4. Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Harvard Business Press, 2010): Changing behavior by championing people who get better results.
  5. Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (rev. ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009): Realistic, masterful handbook for diagnosing your culture and raising its tacit assumptions to the surface.
  6. The Katzenbach Center website: Ongoing source of research and insight on culture change theories and methods.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, visit s+b’s website at:
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