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It’s the Culture, Stupid

By Jamie Notter

3 min read

It’s the Culture, Stupid

Organizational culture is a funny thing. I think most people would agree that it’s important. I don’t hear people saying, “Nah, it doesn’t matter what our organizational culture is; we’ll perform well regardless.” And if you ask a boss what the culture is like at their organization, they’ll typically use positive descriptors. No boss wants to admit their culture sucks, right? Actually the same is true for employees, too. If they think the culture sucks, they’re likely polishing up the resume.

So here’s the next, logical question (for both bosses and employees): what actions are you taking to consciously shape your culture?

(cricket, cricket…)

My guess is you’re too busy doing your work to actually take time to do things that would shape the culture that you want at your organization. You may have a sense of the kind of culture you want, though it might be a bit vague. You probably want things like open communication, a culture of innovation, collaboration, excellence, etc. And hopefully those ideas are guiding your behavior as you do your work, so won’t that shape the culture?


It’s not enough to have a desired state in mind, and here’s why. Those values you have are definitely awesome: communication, innovation, excellence–that’s good stuff. The problem is, you also have competing values that can negate those values you want in your culture. We value getting things done quickly (so we don’t communicate). We value already knowing the answer and appearing smart (so we won’t risk innovation). We value profit (so we won’t spend money or time elevating the excellence of something). Just because you value those “good” things doesn’t mean that those are the values that end up being woven in to the fabric of your organizational culture. The “good” values and the competing or contradictory ones are all out there in play together, but only a few of those values actually make it into the culture that defines your organization. In the absence of clear direction, the culture simply creates itself.

So here’s the challenge: you can either consciously shape what values get included in your culture, or you can accept whatever makes it into your culture via osmosis. And I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that osmosis cultures are rarely the ones that get written about in the business press. Osmosis cultures don’t make you a “best place to work.”

So I go back to my original question: what actions are you taking to consciously shape your culture? I’m beginning to think this is one of the biggest challenge facing leaders today, maybe even reaching that Carville-esque level of “it’s the culture, stupid” (hat tip to author Fred Mills, for reminding me of the phrase).

We struggle to perform in cultures that have evolved via osmosis, undercutting our current efforts, because they are filled with contradictory or competing values, or they’ve absorbed values that are incompatible with our current environment. Until you create a more powerful culture, you’ll have trouble retaining the best people, you’ll have trouble beating your competition, and you’ll have trouble growing.

So that means you have to consciously change things. Does that scare you? I think lots of people are scared by culture change, but I’m not convinced it is as scary as we think. I think there are concrete things we can do to start shaping culture, today. I think we can change culture one process at a time.

I’ve retooled all my consulting projects to focus on making culture change happen. Want to shift your culture? Then change the way you do performance reviews. Finally address the silo issues. Work to build trust up and down the hierarchy and across departments. Deal with that conflict you’ve been avoiding. Change how you orient new employees. These are all tremendous opportunities to shift your culture (and solve regular ol’ management problems at the same time). Organizations that figure this out and take action are going to be ahead of the game.

About the author

Jamie is Vice President at Management Solutions Plus Inc., in Rockville, Maryland, where he leads MSP’s consulting division. Clients call on him to help them solve tough problems, build internal capacity, and amplify leadership. He also speaks extensively for corporations and associations.


Jamie Notter

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