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Published: January 19, 2011
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62

 
 

Stop Blaming Your Culture

The first thing to change is the view that, as a leader, you can fix your culture by working on it directly. Rarely is that the case. Just as you typically can’t argue someone out of a deeply held belief, you can’t force people to change the way they think and feel about their work. Instead, you need to focus on specific behaviors that solve real problems and deliver real results. This, in turn, enables people to experience the results of thinking differently. Experience becomes a better teacher than logical argument.

Imagine that you were an advisor from an industrialized nation, sent to a remote island village to help local farmers improve their productivity. Would you start by trying to overhaul their culture to be more like your country’s culture? Or would you set out to learn more about the way they thought, looking for connections to your ideas, giving them reasons to feel confident about trying something new? The former approach might make you feel more important at first, but it would likely fail — or at best, take years to accomplish. In contrast, offering a few new methods might generate an approving early response, and those practices would spread as they produced results. The same is true in your company.

As Schein puts it, “Always think first of the culture as your source of strength.” Tapping into the emotionally gripping aspects of your existing culture can accelerate performance. For example, a deep commitment to customer service may exist, even in companies that are losing customers. This can be drawn upon in efforts to improve customer retention rates. The ability to diagnose the beneficial attributes of a culture, and then use them to motivate strategically important behavior, is one of the key factors that differentiate peak-performing organizations from the also-rans in their field.

A corporate culture takes some of its attributes from the professional and educational background of participants. An electronics engineering–driven company like Hewlett-Packard has a very different cultural ambiance from a pharmaceutical firm like Pfizer, a bank like JPMorgan Chase, or a “metal-bending” manufacturer like GM. Culture is also influenced by the attitudes of the founders, the location of the headquarters, the types of customers that the company serves, and the experiences people have together. That’s why different companies in the same broad industry, such as HP, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Acer, IBM, and Dell, can succeed with such different cultures. Within an overarching corporate culture, there are generally several subcultures, each with its own unique elements. Schein writes that these can include an operational culture, spurred by line managers eager to get the most out of their people; a senior executive culture, grounded in financial insight and training; and an engineering culture, in which attention is focused on the technology.

To understand your culture, you need to pay close attention to its quiet, sometimes hidden, manifestations, such as the side conversations in the hallways, the informal consultations behind closed doors, and the incisive guidance that people get when they ask one another for advice. It is also evident in the formal lines of the organization chart and the ways in which directives are worded. Cultures can be diagnosed best by the work behaviors they promote. Do people collaborate easily? Do they make decisions individually or in groups? Are they open with their information? Do they reflect on successes and failures and learn from them?

As you move from diagnosing to improving behaviors, focus first on the few critical changes that matter most and support getting the work done, thereby accelerating the results you want. Make use of both formal and informal mechanisms.

 
 
 
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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
 
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