It’s the Culture, Stupid

Organizational culture is a funny thing. I think most people would agree that it's important. I don't hear people saying, "Nah, it doesn't matter what our organizational culture is; we'll perform well regardless." And if you ask a boss what the culture is like at their organization, they'll typically use positive descriptors. No boss wants to admit their culture sucks, right? Actually the same is true for employees, too. If they think the culture sucks, they're likely polishing up the resume.

So here's the next, logical question (for both bosses and employees): what actions are you taking to consciously shape your culture?

(cricket, cricket...)

My guess is you're too busy doing your work to actually take time to do things that would shape the culture that you want at your organization. You may have a sense of the kind of culture you want, though it might be a bit vague. You probably want things like open communication, a culture of innovation, collaboration, excellence, etc. And hopefully those ideas are guiding your behavior as you do your work, so won't that shape the culture?


It's not enough to have a desired state in mind, and here's why. Those values you have are definitely awesome: communication, innovation, excellence--that's good stuff. The problem is, you also have competing values that can negate those values you want in your culture. We value getting things done quickly (so we don't communicate). We value already knowing the answer and appearing smart (so we won't risk innovation). We value profit (so we won't spend money or time elevating the excellence of something). Just because you value those "good" things doesn't mean that those are the values that end up being woven in to the fabric of your organizational culture. The "good" values and the competing or contradictory ones are all out there in play together, but only a few of those values actually make it into the culture that defines your organization. In the absence of clear direction, the culture simply creates itself.

So here's the challenge: you can either consciously shape what values get included in your culture, or you can accept whatever makes it into your culture via osmosis. And I'll go out on a limb here  and suggest that osmosis cultures are rarely the ones that get written about in the business press. Osmosis cultures don't make you a "best place to work."

So I go back to my original question: what actions are you taking to consciously shape your culture? I'm beginning to think this is one of the biggest challenge facing leaders today, maybe even reaching that Carville-esque level of "it's the culture, stupid" (hat tip to author Fred Mills, for reminding me of the phrase).

We struggle to perform in cultures that have evolved via osmosis, undercutting our current efforts, because they are filled with contradictory or competing values, or they've absorbed values that are incompatible with our current environment. Until you create a more powerful culture, you'll have trouble retaining the best people, you'll have trouble beating your competition, and you'll have trouble growing.

So that means you have to consciously change things. Does that scare you? I think lots of people are scared by culture change, but I'm not convinced it is as scary as we think. I think there are concrete things we can do to start shaping culture, today. I think we can change culture one process at a time.

I've retooled all of my consulting work to focus on culture. I think it's that important. I have a series of interventions, ranging from an assessment to leadership coaching, that is devoted to intentionally creating a stronger culture (I call it the Culture Fitness Program). And if you want to be more subtle about it, I have a number of specific projects that solve particular problems in your organization (conflict, silos, performance reviews, etc.) that all shape culture as a side effect.

image credit

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture


  1. 25.09.2012 at 9:21 pm

    This one resonates with me, Jamie. I’ve long said that the only “values” exercise I would ever participate in is the one where we get to define what the organization in question actually does value (in your example: getting things done quickly, appearing smart, making profit) rather than what its leaders aspire it to value. You can (and should) have that second conversation–but it is the SECOND conversation. Let’s start by shining a bright light on our “osmosis culture” so, if we want to make changes, we know where to start.

  2. 27.09.2012 at 2:46 pm

    Think you are spot on Jamie.

    Only issue I had was this one: I think we can change culture one process at a time.
    I “rebel” at the word “process.” Seems to be too mechanical and not human. Wish we had a better, more humanized, word to talk about modifying culture.


    • 27.09.2012 at 2:54 pm

      I hear you Steve. Though a point I like to make in Humanize conversations is that machines–as much as I’m rebelling against them–are not all bad. We aren’t throwing out machines or even machine-like thinking. I think we need processes. I think we even need repeatable processes in some cases. So I think it’s possible to put a human lens on things like process without needing a new word.

      I think it’s interesting/ironic: the very source of human life–the human heart–is at once the metaphorical representative of things non-mechanical, like love and passion, yet at the same time, in physiological terms, it is a quite perfect machine, with valves and chambers and efficient, repeated movements. Part of the paradox of humanize, if you ask me.

      • 27.09.2012 at 3:17 pm

        Ok … I hear you.

        My rebellion to “process” is when our processes get so “hardened” that they become a barrier to innovation and stall us into “that’s how we do it around here.” Then processes transition from helping productivity to preventing needed change.

        Like your thoughts regarding the paradox of the heart.


  3. ann
    12.10.2012 at 2:48 am

    thanks this post