Company culture is frequently discussed, but rarely understood. From business schools to boardrooms you will hear things like, “We need to have a good culture” and, “Our great culture will attract talent”. However, these same people are unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for what they mean by ‘culture’ and how one might affect theirs. You will get responses like, “It is how the company feels”, or “A good culture cares about their people” or, “Buy a ping pong table”. These types of answers are either not actionable or are ineffectively shallow.
Culture is a hot topic because it is clearly important, but it is still an unmastered frontier. Our fuzzy understanding culture leads to problems when CEO’s try to change their company’s culture. Our understanding of culture is getting better, but most of our leaders are far from competent in this domain.
One approach to culture in the consulting world is to get a feel of a company culture by identifying the dominant personality traits that a culture has. This can be from either the perspective of the Big Five, the Enneagram or Jungian Archetypes (sometimes referred to as Myers-Briggs). Although such an approach can be useful, it does not get the core of culture alone.
Richard Barrett developed a model for organizational culture that looks at the values an organization holds. Barrett’s work was heavily influenced by the work of Abraham Maslow and his idea of the hierarchy of needs, which is evident in the stages of the development portion of Barrett’s model. Barrett’s model highlights different levels of consciousness that can be accessed at different stages of human development. Barrett outlines the values that he thinks make up these levels of consciousness, and suggests applications to both companies and individuals. Although there is some contention about the tool, practically it can work very well in companies. The experience of myself and my colleagues is that going through a process of surveys and facilitated conversations throughout the client company, that the process itself gets you a long ways in terms of cultural change. During the process the conversation about values itself helps bring uncurious assumptions and conflicts to a conscious level. Moreover, there is good information flow from the bottom of the organization to the top through the workshops us consultants facilitate because we act as safe messengers for the workers in the organization, who are often thrilled to have their say about what their company should be like. There are three keys to this process working. First the leadership needs to be committed to change, which often starts with changing their own behaviours. Second the consultants need to help provide changes to the structures of the of the organization as well as training where applicable. Finally, for lasting change to take place, follow up and retests to measure the change keep the project a high enough priority in the company for meaningful implementation. The folks at 1-degree shift do good work in this area, helping pioneer the full process. I think this process is a really good first step, and may be some enough for some companies to solve their problems, and I highly recommend getting this work done. With that said I also think that there are deeper levels of cultural change that would have a larger impact on companies, with more of a focus on leadership development, which requires a deep understanding of what culture is.
Richard Barrett’s Levels of Consciousness and Abraham Maslow’s Stages of Development
Another thought leader in organizational culture, Ed Schein, pointed out that we need to think deeper than the espoused values of the organization, and get to the level of unconscious assumptions. I think Schein is right, culture is at a deeper level than your articulated values. This aligns with what behavioural psychologists think, you don’t believe what you say, what you believe is how you act. Schein goes a level deeper than values to the level of assumptions, that are often unconscious. Another one of Schein’s contributions to our thinking is that idea of cultural homeostasis. That is to say that you cannot really see what a company’s culture is like until you try and change it; and then the true culture resists such change.
However, I think that culture is rooted even further down the proverbial iceberg and is deeply intertwined with the individual. That is to say that 1) company culture is some function of the individuals who make up the company and 2) that culture is past the level of unconscious assumptions and is at some deeper psychological level that gets to the core of who an individual is. Culture is something like how the individuals who make up a company’s culture are psychologically oriented in the world. My hypothesis is that as we understand more about psychology at the deep end of the iceberg, we will understand more about culture.
From a practical perspective here is how I currently think about culture:
Culture is not what the CEO says it is. All too often corporations have empty an slogan, mission statements, or value statements that are easily detected to be false. People are good at figuring out what your culture is really like, and if it does not match what you say your culture is it has a severe negative effect on your employees’ perception of the company. Nor is culture what you do, rather it is why you do what you do. It is not how you onboard people, but why you onboard people and why you onboard in that particular way. It is not what the company strategy is or what their policies are, but why they are that way. This why is deep. It includes both conscious and unconscious intentions. The more psychologically developed and well-oriented the leader of a company, the better the culture of the organization. What I mean by the leader’s orientation is complex, but for the purposes of this piece it can be thought of an the motivations of the leader. Likewise, the pathologies, immaturities or unchecked unconscious intentions of the company’s leader can seep into the culture of an organization. Therefore, individual development is deeply tied to organizational culture. To change a culture, you need to change yourself. You need to check your intentions, check your values, and increase the scope of your goals and standards, then your company culture will improve.
Additionally, culture is impacted from all levels of the organization. Leaders at the top of an organization may have a disproportionate impact, but each person affects the culture. If I am a new hire the leadership of the company certainly matters, but my perception of your company’s culture is shaped by the people that I interacts with on a daily basis. Who welcomed me to my new company matters. Why they welcomed me matters more. Was it politeness, genuine interest, or calculating politics? Since all of the interactions within a company matter, you can conceptualize culture as the sum of the ‘whys’ behind every action and inaction in a company. Thus, improving the ‘whys’ at any level in the organization improves the culture of the company. Therefore, individual development, investing in your people at a deep psychological level is a cultural development activity. Another implication is that every employee in your company matters. They each play a major role in shaping your culture and should be aware of that responsibility.
Another way to think about culture is how it is similar to the process of how knowledge is transferred from the unconscious to the conscious. First knowledge is unconscious at the procedural level, it is acted out with instinct. Then watchful observers try to capture capture this knowledge in the form of art and stories. Finally, meaning is extracted from these stories and takes the form of articulated knowledge. A similar process of identifying and updating the culture happens with regards to culture as it does with knowledge. Company culture often develops without intention, particularly during high growth phases when everyone is focused on building the capability to meet clients’ needs. Often the company ends up with a culture that may not be appropriate, or optimal for what it is trying to accomplish. CEO’s make the mistake of trying to change their culture by articulating what they wish it were like, after it has already been developed, and they do so without changing their underlying behaviour, which results in hollow words. Particularly, when what happens on the front line, at least culturally, is not what the CEO thinks is happening. Real cultural change is built on foundational changes to behaviour, which in turn get captured in the narrative of the organization, and can then then be articulated accurately. You cannot just say that you have a culture of ‘excellence’, or a culture of ‘innovation’, without the intentional cultivation of such a culture at the behavioural level. That is to say that culture is built from the bottom up, not merely commanded from the leadership. The organization’s leaders need to create the culture, not ask for it. If you want certain cultural quality you have to change how you act to foster that quality, from how you lead, from what your policies are, from where you spend your money etc. Culture is not spoken into existence, it is acted into existence. Moreover, as I outlined earlier, these behavioural changes have to be authentic; people care about, and can detect why you do something, they can intuit your sincerity or motivations. Therefore, in order to change your culture, you must change yourself, and manifest a version of yourself that you want to see reflected in your organization.
So, if you are unhappy about your company’s culture: examine yourself, orient yourself properly, and set the behavioural foundation required to cultivate the culture you want to see in your company.