The Illusion of Corporate Culture . . .


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

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to The Illusion of Corporate Culture . . .

  1. Great article, John. That has given me a new angle on the whole topic. Thank you.


  2. Karen jones says:

    I enjoyed the read thank you John. I would be interested to discuss how the emotional intelligence of each leader of the subculture influences the alignment to the overall culture?


  3. Michael McNally says:

    I could not agree with you more! Over the years I have learned that in order to change or move any organization’s culture, large or small, it has to be done piece by piece or subculture by subculture or nothing much of any substance happens. Also, it’s best done simultaneously while everyone else is busy doing their part to create the agreed upon desired culture … sanctioned and supported from the top, of course!
    Thanks, John!


  4. Pingback: The Illusion of Corporate Culture, part 2 | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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