Organizational Culture and Individuals

Jim Stroup put up a stellar post about organizational culture the other day. He invites us to think about how much impact one individual (even the boss) can have on an organization's (or even a unit's) culture, and he also muses about whether culture can even exist in a unit with high turnover, where no one individual works there too long.

I am hoping that more and more people will see the underlying message in his post (and in the comments): culture is not something any one person can control. Even things like leading by example and communicating your new change effort by themselves will be defeated by an existing culture. But as I pointed out in my comment, some individuals certainly have more of a "center of gravity" when it comes to culture than others. The person who can hire and fire, for example, will drive culture whether they know it or not. People watch that individual or individuals and they emulate them, either consciously or not. That will lead to a set of shared norms, even if a large group of people don't particularly like the norms. Do note, by the way, that a culture can develop around what people THINK the leader (or leadership group) wants, even if they don't want that (read Who Really Matters for more on that one).

But I particularly like one quote from Jim's post, where he asks how people in a high-turnover group experience culture, specifically,

Do temporary employees sense it and put it on, like a uniform, while on
the clock, and then shed it at the end of the day? Is it more variable
than in organizations with less staff turnover, evolving more rapidly
and randomly under the influence of succeeding waves of employees?

First, I think we do put it on like a uniform, with the exception that we often don't realize we're wearing the uniform! Patterns of behavior in organizations are something we are biologically programmed to follow, in my opinion. So we often don't notice we're doing it. And I've seen people (even me!) who have engaged in behavior that I know they don't like, simply because it was part of the culture. I think it happens quickly, so even in high turnover groups, the existing culture can remain strong.

Second, I'm assuming in high turnover groups that something is wrong. I assume people are leaving for a reason. Turnover is not evil, and in some cases desperately needed, but when I hear "high turnover" I am assuming some kind of dysfunction. And in those cases, culture doesn't change much because people give up. They know they are going to leave so they don't attempt to make changes to the culture. So I'm not sure that high turnover groups by definition would have a more varying culture.

But in all of this, one lesson holds true: a critical step in the path to change or shape the evolution of culture is making things explicit. No one individual controls the culture, but not even the collective will have a good grasp on it until we start talking about it. Cultures seem to have a built in protection mechanism in the fact that speaking the truth about organizational culture is rarely in our culture! But the day we are all painfully aware of the precise nature of these uniforms we put on is the day we might take more collective ownership over what these uniforms really look like.


  1. 18.03.2009 at 7:44 am

    Hi Jamie,
    First of all, thanks for the generous reference to, and astute commentary on, my post on this topic. There are a lot of terrific insights captured in your analysis – two of my favorites are in these phrases:
    “That will lead to a set of shared norms, even if a large group of people don’t particularly like the norms.”
    “No one individual controls the culture, but not even the collective will have a good grasp on it until we start talking about it.”
    There is an awful lot in these observations – perhaps you’ve given me more to write about, as well!

  2. 20.03.2009 at 3:44 pm

    When I was a young association executive I was under the mistaken impression that the CEO/CSE didn’t matter all that much. Boy,have I been proven wrong time and again. I have seen associations transformed to good, bad, and ugly my competent, well-grounded, visionary leaders. They brought a sense of commitment, shared values, and an understanding of what it takes to be transformative. Leadership can transform culture but toxic culture also can defeat the best of leadership intentions.