As a former marine biology student (a long time ago) I was always fascinated by limpets, which are a special type of gastropod (snails and mussels, etc.). Every time I visited an intertidal area, whether it be Hawaii, the Pacific Coast, the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, there were limpets clinging to the rocks, sometimes submersed by a high tide, at other times exposed to the hot sun or freezing cold of winter. Hardy creatures and very interesting.
Not only do they cling to a rock with a strong foot muscle, they also have tiny teeth that rasp away at algae clinging to the rocks, and have an ability to etch the rock and form a depression, which makes them even more difficult to remove. And they tend to clump together, each one independent yet the same species.
My marine biology days are long over and now I study business organizations instead of marine organisms. Businesses are equally fascinating, especially when it comes to their corporate culture.
And believe it or not, there are some strong similarities between corporate cultures and limpets!
For example, like a limpet clinging to a rock that is nearly impossible to remove without damaging it, corporate culture is very difficult to change. Like the mucus on the muscular foot of the limpet, corporate culture seems to have a strong “glue” that holds it together and resists change. That glue, we have come to understand after much research, is the power of peer pressure and informal social networks of acceptance. Strong human to human bonds that tend to mould thinking and behaviour (which are the major elements of corporate culture) and then perpetuate themselves through social reinforcement. An excellent review of the power of social networks and culture can be found by reading Homo Imitans: The Art of Social Infection: Viral Change in Action, by Dr. Leandro Herrero.
Another similarity is that there is not one big limpet, but lots of independent limpets of the same species clumped together on a rock. To me this is analogous to the fact that there is no one corporate culture inside a company, but a series of strong subcultures that tend to operate somewhat independently, yet all are part of the same company.
Corporate cultures are incredibly hardy, as are limpets. Limpets survive submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide. Corporate cultures, especially subcultures, tend to survive no matter what type of organization structure senior management devises, what the business strategy is, how many speeches senior managers give about new values and culture, how many posters on the walls about desired behaviours and ethics. Culture is stronger and will outlast just about anything management can throw at it. It definitely will outlast the CEO. CEOs, like the tide, tend to come and go, but strong subcultures tend to remain.
And believe it or not, some limpets are territorial, keeping others out of their particular patch of rock algae. Well, many subcultures don’t mingle well with other subcultures either and as a result a particular set of toxic behaviours often occur between various subcultures inside a company, where blaming, lack of trust, miscommunication, weak sharing of information and other negative behaviours tend to become common place. At least the limpet is more direct, it just pushed the intruder away!
If leaders wish to reshape or change culture, one of the first things they have to do is understand how cultures are formed and sustained. And in the case of subcultures, they need to find the respected and trusted informal leader that is central to the cohesion of each subculture, recruit that individual to help reshape the stories and behaviours that will ultimately reshape the culture. If you are curious about the “biology” and ecology of corporate cultures, I suggest you read LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, available on Amazon and Kindle.
And the next time you find yourself at the seashore, stop and look at the limpets, but watch out for the high tide!
Written and Posted by: 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
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John also writes thriller novels!