September 11, 2011

Stop Blaming Your Culture and Start Using It

Every corporate culture has behaviors that will help you enable the change you want and others that will hinder it. However, every culture also comes with many complications. Fortunately, there is an effective, accessible way to deal with cultural challenge; don’t blame your culture; use it purposefully.

An organization’s culture can be defined as the set of deeply embedded, self-reinforcing behaviors, beliefs, and mind-sets that determine “how we do things around here.” People within an organizational culture share a tacit understanding of the way the world works, their place in it, the informal and formal dimensions of their workplace, and the value of their actions. Though it seems intangible, a company’s culture has a substantial influence on everyday actions and on performance. When a new leader’s strategy puts the culture of a company at risk, the culture will trump the strategy, almost every time.

“Every company’s identity—the body of capabilities and practices that distinguish it and make it effective—is grounded in the way people think and behave. Deeply embedded cultural influences tend to persist; they change far more slowly than marketplace factors, and cause significant morale problems when not addressed effectively,” said Ahmed Youssef, Partner Booz & Company. When strategy and culture clash visibly, more likely than not, the culture is indicating something about the leadership’s philosophy. Additionally, it’s important to note that organizational cultures don’t change very quickly. Therefore, it is best to use existing culture to initiate a change in the behaviors that matter most. In fact, it is absolutely critical to the lasting success of all peak-performing enterprises.

Myths of Culture Change

There are several myths about culture change that have become prevalent in the business world. Each of these assumptions leads to treacherous pitfalls blocking leaders from responding to cultures in appositive productive way.

Myth 1: “Our culture is the root of all our problems.” This becomes an all-purpose, convenient excuse for performance shortfalls ignoring the realities of organizational culture.

Myth 2: “We don’t really know how to change our culture, so let’s escape it.” There’s a long tradition 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.

Myth 3: “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.

Myth 4: “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.

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. Thinking this way, especially when there have been previous culture change disappointments, can squelch any realistic effort toward high performance. By contrast however, working with and within a culture is sensible, practical, and effective. When leaders learn to operate this way, their employees tend to become more productive and their own efforts become more rewarding.

Pragmatic Practices

There are numerous principles for changing culture through behavior have become evident through ongoing practice:

Start pragmatically: Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on a few critical behaviors that resonate with your current culture, but that will raise your organization’s performance.

Reinforce the new behaviors through formal and informal means: Provide formal metrics, incentives, and process guidance that lead people to practice these new behaviors again and again, until they experience their value.

Seek out role models for the new behavior: Start with the most effective practitioners, the people who distinguish themselves by the way they act.

Enlist your current “cultural carrier.”: These are the people who are well positioned to transmit behaviors to others, and who can be developed to spread the positive elements of the existing culture.

Use the culture you already have: Take pains to stay within the most essential tenets of the existing culture. Understand clearly the reasons that current practices exist before trying to change them.

Model what matters most: Be a visible and consistent role model of the behavior change you want to see in others.

Clarify the specific implications of the new behavior: People need guidance about new behaviors.


In the end, if used properly, culture can become a major factor supporting strategy. However, deeply embedded cultures change slowly—far more slowly than the business environment bringing with them many complications. Nonetheless, effective change is possible. “I have often heard leaders of regional companies complaining about their culture, while ignoring its positive elements. They aspire for radical changes replacing the old guard with new blood. Focusing on behavioral change in a few activities that matter could lead to better results faster,” says Youssef. Indeed, there is an effective, accessible way to deal with cultural challenges; Don’t blame your culture; use it purposefully. Learn to work with it and within it. In this way, truly beneficial change can be initiated, accelerated, and sustained—with far less effort, time, and expense, and with better results, than many executives expect.