A policeman was walking along a dimly lit street at night and noticed a man on hands and knees near the lamp post. The man was obviously searching for something. “What are you looking for?” asked the cop. “My car keys. I seem to have lost them.” “Are you certain you dropped them here?” “No, but this is the only place that has any light!”
Ever since the publication of the global best seller, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in 1984, academics, consultants and HR executives have been focused on corporate culture. Hundreds of articles and books focus on defining, explaining, measuring, assessing, comparing, reshaping and changing corporate culture. With all that research and intellectual horsepower it seems only logical that the concept of corporate culture would be clear and simple to understand.
Alas, that is far from the case. In fact there is not even an agreed upon definition of corporate culture and there are over 70 different culture assessment tools available, all purporting to have the definitive answer! And every day the business news has another article about corporate culture. Most recently the focus has been on the “broken culture” of global banking and the “poor customer service culture” of RyanAir.
We know culture matters! We know culture impacts performance. We know leaders influence the culture. We know peer pressure and the human social need to “fit in” mould and sustain corporate culture.
But just where is corporate culture? Where does it reside inside the company? In a department or function? In work behaviours? In beliefs and corporate values?
Corporate Culture is Heard, Not Seen!
The classic answer is that corporate culture resides in the habitual and characteristic work behaviours of employees at all levels which they use to solve business challenges, interact with each other and customers. But cataloguing all the work behaviours that happen inside a company and determining which ones are cultural drivers is a monumental task. Some may be major drivers, others minor, and some not cultural drivers at all.
Another place to look is in Values Surveys, where employees rate their own values versus that values espoused by the company. Again this have proven to be a very weak indicator of corporate culture, since that same value, say “integrity” can have very different interpretations by different individuals inside the same company. And since many of our workplaces are highly diverse, with employees from many different ethnic and social backgrounds, it is easy to have different interpretations of the same value word.
Maybe we should be looking away from the lamp post!
It has been my experience that one of the strongest drivers of corporate culture, and actually a key place to really find your corporate culture, is in the informal stories told by employees around “the water cooler”.
Every culture has a set of stories that contain the “informal culture rules” about what is important, what is accepted, and how to win and fit in. It’s the company folk-lore and a powerful driver of corporate culture.
The stories may be about how the original founder went out of his way to help a customer. There may be a story of what happened to an employee who disagreed with his boss! There are numerous stories, which seem to circulate and recirculate, about what it’s like to work here, how to get ahead and how to keep your job! And these stories are told whenever and wherever employees gather where they feel “safe”. It could be at the canteen, around the water cooler, in the bar after work, at a weekend gathering of friends who work together.
If you listen, you will find your corporate culture. The real question is, do you like what you hear?
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels