There’s no point discussing culture until you’ve identified it

There are two components to culture:  1) strength  and  2) style.  Most of the time when we talk about culture colloquially,  we are talking about strength.  A Harvard study of more than 200 companies found that a strong culture can increase net income by more than 700% over ten years.  This kind of statement seems to suggest that good culture is a ‘one size fits all’ solution.  However, Pixar, Google and Huawei all have strong cultures, yet also distinctly different cultures.

There’s no point trying to strengthen your culture unless you know what kind of culture you need to strengthen.

Agility is about knowing how to adapt to a changing environment without dampening your vision.  In this way, culture change is generally not about making your current culture stronger, but adapting your cultural style to internal or external demands.  HBR conducted a comprehensive review of organisational culture styles and found eight complex and diverse pattern of behaviour which define the culture framework.  What does this mean?  There is no single best cultural style.  Determining which style is optimal for your business depends on where you are, where you want to be and what context you operate in.

Culture style is about looking at what values really drive your vision, and what values might get in the way.  Inherent in the culture framework are fundamental value trade-offs, or choices you need to make to develop your culture in the right direction.  What is more important to you?  Flexibility or stability?  Independence or interdependence?  Trying to prioritise everything will generally create resistance.  For example, many organisations state that they value both ‘results’ and ‘caring’ but natural constraints in human behaviour will make this combination confusing to most employees.  Are they supposed to be performance-focused  (prioritising independence and stability… think Huawei)  or people-focused  (prioritising interdependence and flexibility… think Pixar)?

Having competing values will naturally limit the extent to which both are able to be expressed and create a weaker culture. 

To optimise performance and engagement, we need to start thinking about culture.  But to grow or change your culture,  it’s first necessary to determine the style of culture you want to strengthen.  This means getting clear on exactly what values and competencies are needed to bring your vision and strategy to life.

Once you establish what kind of culture style you need, it is then necessary to shine a spotlight on what kind of culture you have.  You can diagnose your ideal culture by carefully considering your business plan and leadership talents…  but diagnosing your current operating culture is more difficult.

Culture is the sum of the values of each person in a group.  Identifying your organisational values is not about posting what you want on your website (your ideal culture), it is about looking objectively at what currently drives behaviour in your organisation.  This means identifying what your people actually value (your operating culture).  Only then can you begin to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be.  

Is your organisation aligned in its operating vs ideal culture? 

If there is an inconsistency between the values you state for your business and what your employees actually do,  you’re in trouble.  Humans naturally attune to that inconsistency and it will have a corrosive effect on both employee and customer engagement…  and ultimately your performance.

Culture style needs to enroll more than the top decision-makers.  It needs to filter into all aspects of the business – people, practices, structures, systems and processes.  Leading with integrity means you need to walk the walk (act in line with your stated values),  and attract and retain people who are able to walk that walk with you.  The key to growing your culture is identification.  Only once you have identified the gap between what you have and what you need can you create effective communication and action.

This is where culture strength comes in.  How committed are you to strengthening your culture style?  How committed are you to ensuring your employees actions are supporting your vision and strategy?  Organisational values should be clear to everyone and consistently shared, enacted and reinforced throughout the organisation.  You can develop culture from within or recruit outsiders to direct or strengthen the kind of change you need.

Before you can strengthen the culture you need, you need to diagnose the culture you have.

Dr. Kate Derry
Dr. Kate Derry

Dr. Kate Derry specialises in self-psychology. Her research demonstrates that how people think about themselves has a large impact on how they function, both internally and with the world around them. Kate believes that self-insight and acceptance is the first step towards optimisation and positive change. She is a published author and has worked in the space of entrepreneurship, innovation and education. Kate combines her skills in research and development, as well as science communication, to deliver more actionable and reliable people insights.

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Kate Derry

Kate Derry