When the Cultural Norm Really Isn’t the Norm

Company culture word cloudCulture is one of those things that builds subtly over time.  Its subtlety makes it almost invisible in an organization.  It also makes it hard to recognize when culture has shifted.  Take two examples:

A large service company was renowned for its customer focus.  Every decision in the company took into account the impact on the customer.  It was a foregone conclusion that no actions would be taken that disadvantaged customers, no matter the financial implications for the company.  Yet, high-placed company veterans began leaving the company because of disagreements about strategy.  The union started getting a lot of complaints from customer service reps about the imposition of limits on customer service call times.  The Human Resources department noted a drop in referrals from employees to friends and colleagues to apply for jobs.  At the root?  A perceived erosion in the company’s dedication to its promises to the customer.  The economic times had forced belt-tightening, and there was a sense that the company was cutting not just fat, but the real ‘meat’ of the organization – its very essence.  The cultural norm of customer superiority was not operating on the same level it had for the past 100 years, and it was gnawing at people’s deeply held beliefs.

In another company (let’s call them TelTech), employee engagement and organizational collaboration had been high.  A large part of the company’s ability to get new products to market was based on its ability to quickly get people working together with little to no supervision.  But as the CEO moved toward his retirement age, competition between two likely successors became intense, and collaborative work between their two areas virtually ceased.  So did the habit of working with little supervision, as competitive mistrust transformed decision-making into a hierarchical bureaucracy.  Sadly, when the succession was finally decided, things did not return to normal.  The culture of engagement and collaboration had permanently shifted to one of siloed competition and lack of transparency.

What is most interesting is that in both these organizations, when asked to define the culture, virtually everyone in the organizations described the culture that had been longstanding – not the culture that had evolved.  Only newcomers to the organizations described the culture accurately.

One of a leader’s most important capacities is his/her ability to accurately channel the organization’s culture to positive ends.  It thus goes without saying that if the leaders are assuming cultural norms that no longer exist, their key strategies are at risk.  In fact, our friends at ‘TelTech’ in the example above began to have enormous difficulty getting innovative products to market.  Chaos reigned as managers worked up and down the new bureaucracy instead of talking to each other.  It took several years for the company to realize that the culture shift was now preventing rather than fostering innovation and collaboration.  By that time, other competitors had sprinted ahead.

How does a leader stay tuned in to such cultural evolution – and influence where it is going?  Culture needs to be on the radar screen and be assessed regularly, like any of your company’s assets.  Here are some thoughts about how to do that:

  • Take off your own blinders. In order for you to see or hear about something unexpected in your organization, you need to set aside your own preconceptions and open your objectivity.  It helps to periodically ask yourself – and others – what assumptions you make about the company and its functioning.  Keep the list handy and look at those assumptions critically every few months.
  • Don’t let a gut nudge go unquestioned. You know those moments when someone says something, or you see behaviors being carried out, and your gut says, “That’s not the way things work around here.”  Instead of assuming it’s an anomaly, ask some questions about why the players chose to do something that seemed counter-cultural.
  • Have regular reviews with the moral compasses of the organization. In every organization, there are a few of those Thomas More-like people who unyieldingly stand for the best the organization has to offer.  Check in with them about what they are seeing that makes them feel uncomfortable about the culture.
  • Make it a habit to talk to newbies. Among the questions you ask them, ask them to define the culture of the organization – positive and worrisome – in terms of the behaviors they see being carried out.
  • Look for the signs in the stars. There are some common signals to tell you the culture has shifted and people are not comfortable with it: increases in turnover; fewer referrals of talent into the organization; generalized dissatisfaction, especially with management, on employee surveys, for example.
  • Recheck the organization’s values statements. Many organizations these days have formalized values statements that go along with their mission and vision.  Every couple years it’s worth a good conversation about those values:
    • If we were to weight them, which have the greatest weight and which lesser weight? Compare the trends of those weightings over time.
    • What risks are we seeing to behaving in accordance with these values?
    • What new values are emerging? Are they values we intended?

Believing a culture is cruising along, giving your organization its advantages and none of its disadvantages, can be a fatal flaw for leaders.  Sometimes the culture you think you see is not the one currently in operation.  Hit the pause button: are your cultural norms really the norm?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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