The Many Myths of Corporate Culture


The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  ~ John F. Kennedy

 Corporate culture is one of those business issues that, as we have seen, is difficult to define and certainly more difficult to manage than a supply chain or even the business brand.  And yet corporate culture is one of the most talked about topics.  I recently spoke with a senior investment manager who had just returned from an investor conference in Brazil and he was floored by the number of times culture came up during investment presentations!

 Anything popular is also subject to exaggeration, misinformation and just plain myths.  Corporate culture is no exception.  Below are some of what I believe to be the most pervasive myths relating to corporate culture.

 Myth 1:  Culture is built from the top-down

 While the rules, processes, business model and behaviours laid down by the founders are the fundamental building blocks of a corporate culture in early stage companies, quickly a second, and I believe even more powerful determinant of culture comes into play.  And that is group socialization, peer pressure and the human need to fit in and belong.  Often subcultures are far stronger than the original beliefs and ways of working set down at the beginning by the founders.  And if culture is not continuously managed by the leaders, then the influx of new employees make peer pressure a powerful force in shaping the culture.

Myth 2: There is just one culture

While everyone knows there are subcultures, and some culture assessments can slice their data by employee or management level or by department, most culture metrics look at the overall average scores, plot them on their culture “map” and voila, there’s your culture.

subculturesThere is no single, overriding central corporate culture, but instead most organisations are a collection of subcultures of various strengths and characteristics.

In the case of high-performance and cult-like cultures (where culture is actively led and managed), subcultures have more or less the same characteristics, giving a great deal of alignment and strength to the overall culture.

Myth 3: Culture can be measured

Yes and No!  Predetermined characteristics that probably are a part of the cultural makeup can be assessed on a scale (say 0 – 5) and, when combined with the scores for other characteristics, do present a picture or description of the existing culture.  The question that every culture assessment begs is: Do these characteristics accurately describe the culture?  I would say that the well researched “business and behavioural characteristics” provide a closer estimate to the culture than those surveys that seek to measure individual values.

One of the ways to get a good understanding of culture is when the same assessment is conducted at two or three different time periods, say one year apart and the resulting culture descriptions can be compared for changes with the actual business changes and pressures the company has faced over that period of time. These longitudinal looks at culture are very revealing.

Another key point here is to distinguish between a culture assessment and a climate survey.  The climate survey identifies current employee feelings and morale more than the actual deeper business characteristics and habitual behaviours that drive the way we do business. Climate surveys do not measure culture.

 Myth 4:  A high performance corporate culture cannot be defined.

One aspect of this myth is absolutely true. It is next to impossible to define a high performance culture by asking employees to choose the elements of the “desired” culture!  Culture is more than just how well employees feel they fit with the company and how well the company matches their personal values. There are business processes and other characteristics that go into the make up of corporate culture which I believe carry a great deal of weight in determining a high-performance culture.

That said, every industry has different success drivers and by looking at the success drivers of your industry in a balanced format (employees, customers, financials, products, operations, etc.) a management team who understands their business can craft a good list of the behaviors required by all employees, and the ways of working, that will best ensure competitive advantage and effective internal functioning.


Over the next few days I will be posting my remaining Corporate Culture Myths from my book, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, available on Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

+44-208-741-6390  office
+44-7833-493-999  uk mobile

Read John’s blog
Business Books Website

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Just published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
View   The Economist review of LEVERAGE

Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution


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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3 Responses to The Many Myths of Corporate Culture

  1. Pingback: More Corporate Culture Myths . . . | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

  2. Pingback: A Few More Corporate Culture Myths | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

  3. Pingback: The Blind Leading the Blind: Conduct Risk in Financial Services | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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