The Elusive Organizational Culture: What is It, Can It Be Changed, and Why is It Our Go-To Label?

Organizational qualities
Organizational qualities

It may be an apocryphal story repeated so often that we believe it actually happened, but as the story goes, when asked about the organizational culture being created in his burgeoning empire, Sandy Weill, Citigroup’s creator, remarked, What is culture but something you find in yogurt!

To be alive and mildly aware in virtually any organization in the early 21st century is to be awash in endless talk of organizational culture and its impact on everything from employee engagement to organizational performance (See Ray Dalio’s 200+ Principles for the mighty Bridgewater hedge fund).


For reasons not wholly understood even by experts in organizational culture, we have become obsessed with this subject and its seemingly mystical properties. Why do we continue to use, (and abuse), “culture?” Here are four probable reasons:


Catch-All Phrase

Jesse Price, a leading contemporary thinker around the issue of organizational culture and a senior consultant in Spencer Stuart’s organization and leadership practice, calls culture the “garbage can” of organizational life. Everything we don’t like or have no real explanation for is ascribed to “the culture.”


Comfortable Overused Phrase

Run a Google search of the phrase “organizational culture” and you will be rewarded with this useful metric related to the subject: About 15,200,000 results (0.68 seconds).


Unknown Meaning

In a 2012 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Why ‘Company Culture’ is a Misleading Term” John Traphaganm writes:

“When I ask business people to define culture – or even when I ask students in my class on organizational culture to do so – it turns out to be difficult. I either get a simple definition, such as ‘the values of a group’ or I get ‘interesting question’ and something of a blank look as a response. The problem here is that while we use the term ‘culture’ constantly, most of us give very little thought to what that term means and how its use influences behavior and thought within organizations.”


Multiple Meanings

Similarly, in a 2013 HBR article entitled “What is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care?”, author and professor Michael Watkins recounts the results of a “facilitated” conversation he conducted on LinkedIn in which he asked people to define organizational culture and predictably, over 300 responses showed more difference than similarity.


So why all the fuss? We love to endlessly gas on about culture. It’s like the phrase “be more strategic”; everyone says it, but no one can define it. Can’t we just have this one simple pleasure of organizational life?


Well yes, and no. For those of us driven by the – some may say masochistic – desire to bring order to the chaos of the human and organizational dimensions of the companies we serve, how are we to do anything about this nebulous phenomenon that our stakeholders see as the root of all good and evil without addressing the central dilemma: If you cannot define a thing, how can you change a thing? And, are we behaving as responsible practitioners if we allow the stakeholders we serve, whether in the C-Suite or on the line, to continue to muddle around and use the term to justify actions that may waste the time, effort and energy of the organization and gain little or no lasting change?


What most experts will tell us is that superficial or one-dimensional approaches to culture rarely succeed. The phenomenon that is organizational culture is resistant to full frontal assaults. Simply invoking the word as part of an organizational intervention may undermine efforts to effect change in the expected area of focus.


Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, is arguably the godfather of organizational culture. He tells us, “What really drives culture – its essence – is learned, shared tacit assumptions on which people base their daily behavior.” It is a somewhat academic description but instructive in helping us to see that culture is largely shared learning about practices, norms, incentives, and ways of doing things that over time fall into the collective unconscious and yet continue to drive the behaviors of individuals. If we as practitioners are to make change we have to focus not on the outcomes that we then label culture, but on the ways in which an organization engages in creating shared learning and how that learning influences behavior toward making a lasting change over time.


A Different Approach

So a useful starting point may be to simply stop using the word “culture” to define organizational conditions that vex us and to start looking at the drivers and underlying forces that shape the outcomes that we label as culture. To do so we should adopt an interdisciplinary mindset by looking across the four interdependent contexts that can help us to understand and diagnose such outcomes:

  • Anthropology: what are the forces that shaped the formative aspects of the “society” we are examining?
  • Psychology: why do the members of the “society” – individually and collectively – do what they do?
  • Sociology: how do the members of the “society” interact with each other?
  • Management Science (with apologies to Henry Mintzberg who tells us that management is a practice, not a science): what are the tools of the practitioner that can be brought to bear to influence and impact the overall effectiveness of the “society”?


While any one of these lenses can be helpful in diagnosing the problem and even prescribing a useful solution, unless we cross-reference across these disciplines we may fail to address the problem holistically.


Taking this to a more practical level, Roger Connors management consultant and author of Change the Culture, Change the Game, in an online presentation to the 2013 Best Practice Institute (BPI) webinar shared his “results pyramid.” The graphic depicts four levels of focus and helps us to see where we can best target efforts to change culture:

  • Results
  • Actions
  • Beliefs
  • Experiences


He astutely tells us that when organizational problems arise, more often than not, top management will attempt to influence the organization at the Results and/or Actions levels of the pyramid. In a hypothetical organization that is trying to gain greater collaboration amongst its members, the decree from the top may be, “we need to create a collaboration competency and measure everyone on it” (Results), or “we will assign one person from the team to be the “collaboration agent” who will work with other teams across the organization” (Actions). Neither of these interventions is likely to have any meaningful or lasting impact, yet it is not a huge leap of imagination to envision either of these solutions offered up as a corporate mandate.


Connors goes on to say that lasting and substantive change comes from finding ways to orchestrate experiences where people can “feel” the benefits for themselves. (This is where the OD practitioner with top management’s support becomes the key player.) One organization we know of that was trying to solve a collaboration problem, among a number of others, created a leadership development program spanning a full year during which time the executives in the program would, among other things, periodically meet in small groups intentionally mixing people across functional lines, to dig deep into subjects of trust, emotional intelligence and their own personal and professional goals (Experiences); while at the same time receiving the message that they, as a cohort, could make lasting change in the organization (Beliefs) and intentionally involving them in projects to facilitate such contribution.


At the conclusion of the program, a majority of those having participated cited the relationships forged in the small group settings as having a spillover effect into their “day jobs,” affording them with giving an enriched network across the organization. Two subsequent graduating cohorts reported similar results.


In summary, culture is a mostly unconscious phenomenon that doesn’t take well to a head-on approach to changing it. Attempting to change culture is a noble activity but it is when we declare that as our goal that we get into trouble. As practitioners we need to start educating our stakeholders that culture is an outcome; that changing culture is a long game; that we cannot, as the saying goes, legislate virtue; and, that we should stop using the word culture to describe everything we do not fully understand or control inside of our organizations. Our goal then is to work with our stakeholders to identify the levers that influence culture’s formation and to orchestrate experiences that allow people to discover and reinforce new behaviors that move them and the organization from the current to desired future state.

Culture is dead. Long live culture.

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Louis Scenti
Mr. Louis J. Scenti, Jr. has been Senior Vice President of Talent Management at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York since February 2015. Mr. Scenti served as Vice President of Talent Management and Development Division, human resources function, Corporate Group at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York since July 2009. Mr. Scenti joined The Federal Reserve Bank as an assistant vice president of talent management and development division since November 2008. Mr. Scenti holds a bachelor's degree in speech/theatre from Rhode Island College and a master's degree in Human Resources Development from the New School University.