This week’s Pearl of Leadership Wisdom is on Culture.

You manage the culture or it manages you.

It has been said so many times that culture is “the way we do things around here” that I cannot find an attribution.

But it’s true.

In his 1992 book “Organisational Culture and Leadership” (I read these books so you don’t have to), Edgard Schein describes culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Yup, that’s about it.

He then defines three levels of culture:

  • Artifacts – those aspects (such as dress) which can be easily discerned but are hard to understand (and explains the idiocy of dress-down Friday).
  • Espoused values – conscious strategies, goals and values.
  • Basic underlying assumptions and values – this is the core or essence of culture. They are difficult to discern because they exist at a mostly unconscious level. But they provide the key to understanding why things happen in a particular way. These assumptions form around opinions on the deeper dimensions of human existence, such as the nature of humans, what is reality and what is truth.

It’s the last one that’s the killer. You can tell people they’re now in the private sector, or they’re now customer focused. You can train them until they’re punch-drunk and set all the new objectives in the world, but until you change the basic underlying assumptions and values, it’s all window dressing.

If you’ve had the misfortune to call British Telecom recently, you’ll know what I mean. Or listen to a politician (underlying assumption of entitlement) or a journalist (underlying assumption that all politicians are corrupt).

I remember doing jury duty. It was clear to me that all the people in the court building who were paid to be there had an underlying assumption that everyone else was a crim. And all the people who were not being paid to be there assumed the others were impotent and irrelevant. Both were right, and wrong. And it’s when they’re wrong that the bad stuff happens.

Ask yourself…

What are the underlying assumptions and values of your organisation. Are they truly helping your organisation to do what it needs to do? Your assumptions and values may be noble. They may be principled. You may be a lovely person. But that’s not the point. Are your assumptions and values useful, or just comforting?

So what about your organisation…?

Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy looked at two things: the speed at which organisations give feedback and reward to their employees regarding whether they are doing a good job or not, and the level of risk taking in the organisation. They came up with four types of organisational culture:

Another 2 x 2 matrix…

Tough-Guy Macho Culture (fast feedback and reward, high risk):

  • Stress results from the high risk and the high potential decrease or increase of the reward.
  • Focus on the present; individualism prevails over teamwork.
  • Typical examples: advertising, financial brokerage, sports.

Work-Hard, Play-Hard Culture (fast feedback and reward, low risk):

  • Stress results from quantity of work rather than uncertainty.
  • Focus on high-speed action and high levels of energy.
  • Typical examples: sales, restaurants, software companies.

Process Culture (slow feedback and reward, low risk):

  • Stress is generally low, but may come from internal politics and stupidity of the system.
  • Focus on details and process excellence.
  • Typical examples: bureaucracies, banks, insurance companies, public services.

Bet-Your-Company Culture (slow feedback and reward, high risk):

  • Stress results from high risk and delay before knowing if actions have paid off.
  • Focus on the long-term, preparation and planning.
  • Typical examples: pharmaceutical companies, aircraft manufacturers, oil prospecting companies.

So what to do…?

Ask yourself: what are my organisation’s speed of feedback and reward (this

should not really be a choice, it’s the way it is, defined by the environment you operate in). What risks do you take? (Again, this is not a choice, not really, not if you’re truly in the game). Do you have the right underlying assumptions and values? Do your colleagues? Staff?

Then define, create and maintain your culture to get the performance you desire. This is one of the most difficult and most essential management and leadership tasks there is.

But knuckle down, because you manage the culture or it manages you.



No comments yet.

Leave a Reply