The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge. ~Daniel J. Boorstin
Did you know that there are over 70 different corporate culture assessment surveys? Each one reporting to give you a clear picture and understanding of your corporate culture; where it is strong and where it is weak. Some are as simple as 4 quadrants, obtained by plotting your culture across two perpendicular axises.
At the other end of the spectrum are those that use a 1 to 6 (or 1 to 100) scale to measure over 100 different variables, to arrive at a picture, usually plotted on a circumplex, of your current culture. And many of these assessments have correlated these variables with high and low performing companies, and thus arriving at the conclusion that high performing companies have a more complete circumplex and thus a stronger corporate culture.
If it were only that simple!
One of the biggest illusions in business today is the belief that corporate culture can be plotted on a single chart, meaning to say that there is one single culture within a company.
My 30+ years of experience in studying and working within organizations large and small on corporate culture points to a very different view. There isn’t one overall corporate culture, but instead almost all organizations are made up of numerous subcultures.
Take the world of global banking for example. There is no “average” banker. Instead, there are mortgage bankers, investment bankers, trading floor bankers, back-office and IT bankers, wealth management bankers, Retail bankers, portfolio bankers, commercial bankers, M&A bankers. About the only thing that makes them similar is that they work for the same bank name; Barclays, or Citibank, or HSBC. But the ways in which they behave and work with their peers and clients or customers is vastly different.
Equally, there is no single corporate culture that can be shown on a 4-box matrix or a colorful circumplex chart. At best you are seeing an “average of an average”! Successful businesses don’t make competitive business decisions based on averages. They dig into the data to spot trends, empty niches and opportunities that are masked over by looking at averages.
Find the Subcultures!
If you really want to understand the strengths and weaknesses, and unearth the inherent risks in your organization, then you must actively seek out and study the various subcultures!
Many businesses are actually a collection of strong subcultures. That is, groups of people who collectively believe and behave in similar ways towards their work, each other, other areas of the business, clients and customers. They also possess a strong set of “unwritten ground rules” about how work should be done and how the members of that particular subculture should behave. They also have one or more highly respected and influential “informal leaders” who are usually not in a leadership position on the org. chart, but who wield incredible power as to how that subculture behaves. Subcultures exist and grow strong through the power of peer pressure, not company policies or written corporate values.
And here is the sad truth. Most senior executives have no clue as to what the various subcultures are within their company, what they believe, how they actually behave, and who the informal leaders are. And the normal culture survey misses these powerful subcultures completely.
Corporate culture is really a collection of subcultures, not a single entity. If the subcultures are aligned, there is an overall cohesion within the organization. If the subcultures have different beliefs about the company and work, then they are often out of alignment with each other and the stated values and strategies of the company. It’s no wonder that senior executives find it hard to execute effectively on a competitive business strategy when there are so many different subcultures operating.
Want to really understand your corporate culture? Spend time understanding the subcultures and you will learn far more than from a “corporate culture survey”!
John R Childress
See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.