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strategy and business
Published: January 19, 2011
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62

 
 

Stop Blaming Your Culture

• “Our culture is the root of all our problems.” This becomes an all-purpose, convenient excuse for performance shortfalls. “Our process-oriented culture inhibits collaboration,” managers say. Or “our long-standing beliefs about nurturing people make us coddle weak performers.” Underlying this myth is a view that attitudes and beliefs shape people’s behavior. This view ignores the realities of organizational culture. As we’ll see, behavior can influence beliefs at least as much as the other way around.

• “We don’t really know how to change our culture, so let’s escape it.” There’s a long tradition, going back to Lockheed Aircraft’s Skunk Works in the 1940s, of creating pockets of entrepreneurial activity for high-performance results. These are explicitly intended to operate outside the prevailing culture. They may thrive for a few years, but they are typically treated as outliers by the rest of the company. Eventually, they are either spun off or absorbed back into the mainstream, succumbing to the company’s cultural malaise. “Our culture kills even our most innovative efforts” thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the most famous of these efforts was General Motors’ ill-fated Saturn brand, modeled after the culture of Japanese automakers and set up to run separately and independently — but eventually overtaken by GM’s culture.

• “Leave culture to the people professionals.” Executives with an engineering, finance, or technology background often feel ill-equipped to deal with cultural issues. They delegate them to their human resources, organizational development, or communications teams. “It’s all about the ‘soft’ side,” say the executives. “We have to improve our employee engagement scores.” But the quality of the culture is as much a product of the “hard” side of the organization (strategies, structures, processes, and programs) as it is of the soft side (beliefs, opinions, feelings, networks, and communities of common interest). Although your internal professionals can measure and monitor behavior as well as advise line management on culture issues, they cannot motivate, execute, or implement strategic or performance imperatives. Ensuring behavior change that drives competitive advantage is the role of line leaders at multiple levels.

• “Culture is the job of the top leaders.” It is very powerful when the CEO and other top executives take explicit personal accountability for the company’s culture. But senior leaders cannot change cultures by themselves. They operate at such a large scale, and with such broad visibility, that they cannot directly motivate people to implement the specific practices and behaviors that are required. To succeed with a culture intervention, top leaders need the support of many leaders down the line — particularly those who have daily contact with the people whose behavior change is most critical.

Sometimes, this myth manifests itself at the board level. Directors assume that the only way to improve performance is to replace the current CEO with another top leader who can bring forth a new and better culture. Because they are looking for someone who promises major change, the company inevitably gets a full-scale culture overhaul — with all the expense, risk, disruption, and likely failure involved.

Working with and within Your Culture

Each of these myths plays out differently. But underlying all of them is a big dose of defeatism. Culture is thought to be too big to ignore, too tough to conquer, and too soft to understand (at least by typical managers). Thinking this way, especially when there have been previous culture change disappointments, is enough to sap your energy and enthusiasm for change. It can squelch any realistic effort toward high performance before you gain the momentum necessary for sustainable success.

By contrast, working with and within a culture is sensible, practical, and effective. Thus, it is inherently energizing. When leaders learn to operate this way, their employees tend to become more productive and their own efforts become more rewarding.

 
 
 
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Resources

  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: www.strategy-business.com/organizations_and_people