Corporate Culture - seeing past the stereotypes and finding excellence

Malcolm Evans
June 16, 2009 — 3,122 views  
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This article is about old and new ways of looking at corporate culture. The research mission is to join up in practical and sustainable ways increased workplace performance and superior workplace fulfilment. Our purpose is to alert organisations to the full potential of corporate culture as a key analytical tool and a framework for better practice.

Cultureship is our unique approach. Our corporate culture research and practical implementation work are based on a belief in the power of the underlying cycle of organisational excellence we identify as Community, Contribution & Recognition.

Just as Leadership is about understanding and developing leaders, so Cultureship is about understanding and developing corporate cultures. Cultureship is the practice of researching an organisation's culture and seeking its development via Community, Contribution & Recognition (CCR). We believe that people need to feel part of a productive community, they must to be able to play a full and active role in supporting and building that community - and they should be acknowledged and rewarded in multiple ways. This credo is bespoked into into a consensual and detailed Cultureship Contract for each organisation.

By way of example, The Cultureship Practice's own Contract is built on Integrity, Hope, Reciprocity, Knowledge and Excellence.These are business ethics which are meant to be lived out daily. Furthermore, our work is closely guided by three central beliefs: The first is that people, when they come together in a productive community, can achieve superb and sustainable results. The second is that it is almost inevitably the case that a bad place to work is a place of bad work, no matter what excuses or evasions are offered. The third is that corporate culture is not something which can be willed, imagined, bullied or manipulated into place. And at a more general level is our commitment that corporate culture must always be explained and understood in relation to real workplaces and real organisational experiences.

We consider how flows of corporate culture shape everyday relationships: considering the pace, rhythm and shape of an organisation. It is revealing to understand what people at all levels within an organisation are saying, what they are not saying - and also what they do not even think could be said. The following statements capture many of the recurrent core conceptions of corporate culture: "I dunno - isn't that just something senior managers and consultants talk about?"

- Corporate Culture as a Fad

One of the most commonly overlooked factors in considering corporate culture is that there are frequently quite radically different cultures and cultural viewpoints. The view expressed above is one we have frequently encountered amongst middle management and frontline staff.

By itself it is not necessarily too much of a problem. It could, however, be linked to Changemania, the syndrome we have identified whereby some leaders are forever grabbing out at the next, new organisational fad.

It might also be associated with poor communications within a company. Sometimes we find that middle and junior management and frontline staff tend to operate to a large extent as a self-regulating "organisation within an organisation".

Whatever the causes of this sense of disconnection from various top-down initiatives, a core shared idea across these kinds of comments is that corporate culture is a manufactured imposition.

There is no such thing as a "corporate culture vacuum".

Whether everyday existence is lived out muddling along the corporate highway whilst dodging the deepest potholes, or doing quite well in patches despite unresolved structural and people issues, one of the biggest misconceptions of corporate culture is that there are "weak" cultures and "strong" cultures. There is always a strong culture.

Our focus is whether it is acting as far as is possible in advancing corporate performance whilst respecting and fostering human needs, all of this coming together in an upwards spiral of excellence. Sadly, in a lot of organisations the culture isn't discussed in any way other than as a distant commitment on a website, e.g. "We foster an innovative culture". Managers hear "positive culture" pleas from the Board, employees hear of new "cultural synergy" training exercises and other buzzword-laden initiatives. All the while, the actual corporate culture/s continue all around the organisation.

And as for the people who say "I dunno", it's likely that they have felt disengaged from the organisational objectives for some time. "Well, I don't know about anyone else because I keep myself to myself a lot of the time, although I suspect many others feel the same way. It's easier just to keep your head down and get on - so there isn't really a culture here."

- Corporate Culture as Survival

Isolation, fear and inertia might not feel like a recognisable culture - or certainly not a culture to be cherished. However, to the individuals concerned such a situation very much constitutes a corporate culture - and it is both very real and also unpleasant. We have encountered survivalist views such as these - more often than not in private - from all levels within organisations, right up to the top on occasions but usually stopping just below it. "There's a lot of friction and a lot of ill-feeling and stress which I feel right in the middle of. What kind of a culture would you call that?"

= Corporate Culture as Conflict

Cultureship argues that a substantial amount of the productive potential of many organisations is burnt up in friction and conflict. There is heat instead of light, noise instead of excitement. The comment leading this section is typical of how many middle managers feel, caught between the edicts of leadership and the disgruntlement of the frontline. Somehow a sea change took place between a widespread viewpoint of our labour as a natural part of life to support our homes, families, health and society and the widespread corporate characterisation of our labour as a win-at-costs grim struggle.

There is too much imagery of battlefields in business-speak, too many threats of crushing, breaking and smashing. The implicit argument is that much of organisational life must revolve around conflict and that organisations themselves are inevitably places of conflict. We simply reject these arguments as wrong. Force and willpower are dubious motivators short-term and inherently unsustainable in the longer-term.

The Cultureship Practice drives all its research and implementation around what we call the Performance-Fulfilment Axis, focusing in on the drivers of Community, Contribution & Recognition (CCR).

These are not weak values - but neither are they values of misplaced posturing and machismo. They reject friction, conflict and hypocrisy in favour of smoother relationships, co-operation and integrity.

These are tribal values, strong and compelling. There is an invitation to come into the stockade and to be a significant part. But with these opportunities to be included and valued come strong responsibilities.

The second main dimension of conflict we frequently encounter arises within individual organisations from their specific internal processes and cultures.

Cultural misalignment of personnel (within layers of seniority, sections and departments and also between individuals), conflicting flows of communication, omissions and over-generalisations of missions and visions, the misidentification of the causes of friction and a moral failure to embrace culture as an asset all play their part.

A direct operational objective of Cultureship is the seeking out and smoothing away of these friction points. These are rubbing points within relationships and understandings which we identify as Cultural Hotspots.

In our experience, genuinely strong organisations don't do conflict - people within them are too busy getting on with each other and getting on with being productive. And enjoying the positive feedback and mutuality that spins the CCR cycle round again.

"Culture? That's a bit 'New Age', isn't it? This is a business after all. I am here to make money and so is everyone else."

- Corporate Culture as Weakness

Even within organisations where overt conflict has been banished, there is still frequently a tendency to fight shy of anything that is seen to veer away from accepted business-speak.

And whilst the specific comment above is one that we would very often encounter, say, within professional practices, the underlying sentiments are implicit throughout swathes of both the public and private sectors.

The common language of organisational development, human resources and management training too frequently veers towards expressing all things with certainty, mathematical precision and a depersonalised, emotion-free dryness.

Again, the focus of The Cultureship Practice is not to threaten performance by overly concentrating on people. On the contrary, we enhance performance by clearly accepting that thinking and feeling people are the bedrock of superior productivity.

Superb working relationships and workplace results are achievable through working with and through the feelings of others. Superior Corporate Culture is not a luxury indulgence and it is certainly not a sign of weakness.

"We seek to create a supportive and dynamic culture, which is flexible and responsive to change and which ensures a sustainable organisation for all stakeholders."

- Corporate Culture as the Vision Statement alone

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with many vision statements such as the one above. In fact, if the above aspiration was translated through into inspiration and onwards into execution, that would be unequivocally brilliant!

Problems occur when leaders create messages such as the one above for managers to recite parrot fashion and for frontline staff to stare at in blank astonishment.

Corporate culture, when it works well and recreates itself in ongoing organisational and human excellence, is a relatively simple and elemental force. However, unpicking complex issues and unpacking accumulated corporate baggage requires much, much more focus than simply plucking some desirable cultural attributes out of the air and committing them to business plans and staff newsletters. Hearts might be in the right place - but great corporate culture also requires calm and questioning heads.

"Oh it's really good! We have regular meetings, which are minuted and circulated, we all know what is going in the organisation, our processes make it a really efficient place to work and we've recently been awarded a customer service prize."

- Corporate Culture as Process

Again, taken at face value, all of the actions and processes above are good and quite probably reflect deserved credit on those responsible and involved. But therein lies the need to look further - culture is being described as process. Where are the people? What are their expectations, assumptions and habits? How is their personal and group CCR connecting with corporate objectives.

The perfectly planned meetings and their painstaking writing-up could just as easily be pacing stultifying mediocrity as sparking engaged excellence. "In my team we all actually get on pretty well and we all seem to enjoy working hard together to get things done. I can't really speak for other departments or the rest of the organisation."

- Corporate Culture as Compartmentalised Individuals

There is a great deal of talk about "joined-up" working and "silo mentalities" both across the public sector and also within many larger private sector companies. Both of these sectors also frequently encounter fresh challenges to their organisational shapes and responsiveness due to their continual redesigns, amalgamations, mergers and acquisitions.

Size and disruption are agents of cultural disruption. It may be, as reflected in the statement above, that groups of people might enjoy significant CCR within their local working environments. However, this is to sell short the latent potential of more inclusive and superior corporate cultures.

Personal experience, however satisfying on a group level, lacks the vital, broader social context. This extra dimension might well further enhance personal fulfilment - but it will almost certainly take corporate objectives such as innovation and productivity to new levels.

And this also leads us into the ongoing tension regarding active corporate culture intervention. On the one hand there are frequently strong potential rewards to be pursued. On the other are the attractions of a more laissez-fair attitude towards a considerable degree of complexity, variance, physical separateness and corporate isolation.

Clumsy and misguided intervention may well backfire, creating wholesale disengagement, leaving the organisation worse off than if it had done little or nothing.

This is why Cultureship methodology seeks a thorough understanding of each and every organisation before seeking any active cultural work. One-size-fits-all interventions can easily work themselves out in practice as one-size-fits-nobody.

Bringing people together clumsily can easily drive them further apart and back into themselves.

But bringing them together well in Community, Contribution & Recognition can work wonders. There is everything to play for in helping people to step forwards from the limitations of their individual compartments. Once again, though, it is the enthusiasm of individuals which must be the starting point, not a sense of generic failure.

CCR is a set of higher values, built around integrity, which is a quality admired by most but felt to be personally attainable by few. However, we believe that great corporate culture centres on doing the right thing well and that this mindset is achievable throughout organisations.

There is no fundamental reason why reciprocity and goodness need not be the norm."There's a great culture. We have setbacks, obviously, but we feel we can talk about things openly. It feels like there's something really together, involving and rewarding going on."

- Corporate Culture as Community, Contribution & Recognition

Breaking through to higher levels of productive and rewarding corporate culture often rests on having the permission and safety to discuss concerns, shortages, failings and problems. In referring back to the opening comment of this final cultural tale, great cultures are actually the easiest to spot. They feel great - and great achievements are seen within them.

About the Author

Malcolm Evans is a founding partner of The Cultureship Practice, a pracademic initiative which researches and develops more productive and more satisfying corporate culture.

Malcolm Evans