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Here’s why you can’t fix your culture problems

Culture matters, and it still needs executive buy-in. But we’re too often thinking of “culture” as a singular instead of a plural.

5 min read




People are talking about culture in corporate America, which is good, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping the scandals: Wells Fargo, Uber, Volkswagen, and countless more.

This seems odd, right? If everyone cares about culture so much, if we have so many staffers and consultants and software offerings and trainings and slogans and team-building activities, how can we be going wrong?

One thing that always to mind for me is the problem in what we’re saying: “the culture.”

There is no one culture at any large company — and maybe not once you’re in a setting of more than handful of people. There is the company’s ideal culture, and the top-level expression of culture, and then there is the culture of the employees, of departments and functions and locations. (Lurking underneath, also, is the culture for when things are going great and the culture that develops when the sky is falling.)

Let’s start at the top. Obviously, if executives are driving the unethical or illegal behavior, there’s not much to decipher — the culture problem starts at the top, if there even is a real culture in play. This is where many of the scandals we know result — Volkswagen and Uber among them. But what if it’s the type of situation described below:

“One problem is the incremental nature of bad behaviour,” said Mr Montagnon. “People can rationalise small breaches and no not even think they are necessarily doing anything wrong. Slippages on things like disclosure and expense accounts could lead to acceptance of serious lapses.”

Here, we have a bit of the Wells Fargo dilemma, where there was supposedly a culture in place to discourage wrongdoing and focus on customers, but no one at the middle levels felt they could abide by it. Or, for a fictional example, think of the many ethical lapses committed at Northeast regional paper supply company Dunder-Mifflin: align:center

Some of the problem of frontline bad behavior is structural: A CEO or home office cannot police every such instance of malfeasance, even if they say and do all the right things in terms of norms, rules, training, reporting, enforcement, etc. But this is also a sign that the desired culture has not trickled down to the lower levels, or that people don’t trust it. How could that be? Is the idea of culture a mirage?

I’ll argue that culture matters and that it still needs to start high and with executive buy-in. But we too often think of “culture” as a singular instead of a plural. Every organization has subcultures or local cultures, which have their own influence on organizations. It’s at these levels, for many possible reasons, that people adopt or diverge from the expectations of corporate.

Michael Lee Stallard wrote about local cultures in his book “Connection Culture,” which I’ve written about.

“Although the macro-culture of your overall organization will influence your local culture, it does not determine it. The primary determinant of connection for you is the attitude, language, and behavior of those in your local culture. For that reason, you can have an influence on your local culture, especially if you are a leader (formal or informal) at that level. I frequently see leaders change their local culture for the better.”

Think of how the addition or departure of a colleague has suddenly changed the immediate feeling of what it’s like to come to work? That’s local culture.

Think of a time where the company’s goal or culture was X, yet one department refused to play along. That’s a local or subculture. Why didn’t that department play along? There could be a number of reasons, but perhaps they were incentivized to work against the top-down goal, or perhaps they felt targeted by the company’s desired culture (say, selling a legacy product that the company wanted to phase out). In other words, it’s more likely their oppositional culture is a reaction to conditions rather than a revolt.

If you want local cultures to feel connected, you’ve also got to staff and communicate appropriately. As Stallard notes elsewhere in “Connection Culture,” Southwest Airlines was known for maintaining 1 supervisor for every 10 frontline employees where other airlines would go to 40 employees per supervisor. No one can manage that many people in a personal manner, much less connect with them.

Finally, don’t forget about geography. “Local culture” in this sense is bigger than your company — it’s the values, traditions and norms of the entire society in which you’re based and your employees live. And when home base is separated from these local offshoots, there’s a greater chance for miscommunication and disengagement. As Erin Meyer of INSEAD has said:

People naturally feel close to colleagues they see daily. So difficulties can arise when employees are working in different locations, which can lead to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. For example, one New York-based financial institution opened offices in Asia and struggled to export its highly collaborative culture. The issues can become exacerbated when you have local environments, for example in a company’s office in America, there are only American employees; in their office in India, there are only Indian employees. The more homogenous the locations are, the more likely there will be an in-group subculture.

Fixing your organizational culture isn’t easy, and it won’t be any easier once you realize how many subcultures and local variants of your desired top-down culture already exist.

The one upside of being aware is that you can stop wondering, “Why aren’t people on the same page?” and start working to get them there.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.