Culture: The Biggest Lie in the History of Organisations

The Truth of Organisational Culture Can Set You Free to Thrive

Organisational Culture: Key Milestones

The 90s Ignition

“The term corporate culture became widely known in the business world in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”(Wikipedia) Those were times marked by growing globalisation, a rapid spread of information technology, the end of the Cold War, growth of knowledge workers and other changes in workforce dynamics.

Organisations were in need of a something that would bind together the growing complexity. Corporate culture and values became the new religion.

New theories emerged in the late 80s and in the 90s among which those of Edgar Schein, Geert Hofstede, John Kotter, Richard Barrett, to name a few. A clear link between culture and performance was established. The culture was the way to unite and inspire people towards common goals. A way to train them into the behaviours which would maximize results.

The modern education system was designed at the beginning of industrialiasation to create good future factory workers.

Culture was how organisations could breed the employee values and behaviours they need.Strong cultures developed their own slogans and corporate legends: “Work Hard — Play Hard”, “No Jerks Rule”, etc. They described who you ought to be (e.g. hard worker who is nice to have around) and how you ought to feel (e.g. enjoy working hard and then indulge into having fun).

The 21C Hype

Just when people got tired of being good corporate soldiers and being told who to be and how to feel, a new hype began. 21st Century brought the concepts of authenticity, purpose-driven enterprises and self-organising:

  • Startups emerged with the “raison d’être” to save or sustain the world. They introduced co-working and working remotely and ditched the suits.

  • Tech giants created “out-of-the-box” cultures and “state-of-the-art” offices making it possible to never leave the office.

  • Corporations redefined their values with fresher, “cutting-edge” versions.The whole purpose of focusing on culture was to improve engagement and performance. Yet, despite the initial hype and its recent rejuvenation, organisations today are not much better.

A case could be made that the organisational climate at work is actually worse. Corporations continue to report disengagement. The startups — initially thought to be a panacea— report unprecedented levels of burnouts and depressions.

So, what’s happening?

Organisational Culture: The Pros

Culture exists whether we care about it or not.Organisational leaders make it part of their rhetoric.

Thought leaders convey how crucial it is. Analysers attribute to it the success of great companies. Any “average folk” knows that some teams have that special energy around them and vice-versa, some organisations have a bad climate that you feel it with every fibre when you interact with them.

Culture is the energy that keeps together the complexity of an organisation. It defines how people interact, lead, learn, work together and deal with change. Ignoring it is simply unwise.

Organisational Culture: The Cons

Ever since culture became a hype, it remained to be a centrepiece. And I am not talking here of the idealists.

Culture was the tool used by smart organisations to consciously form the values, behaviours and the experience of people in pursuit of organisational success.

Culture became something to be analysed, designed, developed and evaluated with the purpose of maintaining good energy and performance on the inside and a good brand image on the outside. The process in each organisation would go somewhat different. The design of the announced values would be developed either by culture evangelists who truly believe in the role of culture and values or by marketing masterminds who know what would look good on the new website. Thus corporate values would become a manifestation of:

  • what’s aspirational and ethically commendable (e.g. integrity, excellent service) or

  • what’s currently trendy (e.g. collaboration, sustainability).

Then would come the corporate communications — presentations, slogans, launch events, retreats and memorabilia.

“The ideal employees are those who have internalized the organization’s goals and values — its culture — into their cognitive and affective make-up, and therefore no longer require strict and rigid external control. Instead, productive work is the result of a combination of self-direction, initiative, and emotional attachment, and ultimately combines the organizational interest in productivity with the employees’ personal interest in growth and maturity… In the view of proponents of strong cultures, work in such companies is not merely an economic transaction; rather, it is imbued with a deeper personal significance that causes people to behave in ways that the company finds rewarding, and that require less use of traditional controls.”— Gideon Kunda

The culture was the new control mechanism and the way to make behaviours predictable. The outcome was sometimes positive but more often than not, it bred cynicism. Here is why:

  • The announced values and culture often differed from reality. Even if values were defined with integrity in the beginning, not understanding how dynamic they are would take its toll. Collaboration would be on the website, silos, conflict and backstabbing would be the reality. Integrity would be announced, office politics would dominate.

  • People could play the game only so long before getting burned out. Day in and out, you would think, feel and act as you are expected to. Then you would either totally lose yourself in this game and get burned out, quit or get sarcastic and make fun of the culture to survive it.

  • Some knew the real importance of culture and remained relentless believers and culture evangelists. They kept trying to provoke interest with new concepts of happiness at work, employee experience and wellbeing, organisational energy and health. Yet, the more humane the concepts, the more cynicism they provoked because the underlying objectives have not changed. Culture was the new form of control trying to manipulate people to be predictable in their behaviour which often meant to be something they are not. Idealising culture and propagating it produces pretty much the opposite effect. So, at some point even the biggest believers could lose faith as well.

Step by step culture initiatives became synonymous with hypocrisy and meaninglessness. Culture and values became the biggest lies in the history of organisations.

Then What Now?

You are an organisational leader who doesn’t need to be persuaded. You intuitively know how important culture is. Yet, everything you’ve done in the past has been a waste of resources.

On the other hand, so needed change initiatives are failing, conflicts and cynicism are at their highest and energy at its lowest.

Culture is most evident when it becomes dysfunctional. Its ultimate test are organisational changes. They subject it to stress which broadens the existing cracks. Culture can keep it all together or let it all collapse.

Check our blog post on the seven principles that can help you and your team create a thriving culture that is fit to pull off your business strategy.

#organizationalculture #culture #organizationaldevelopment

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