The Myth and Reality of Your Organization's Culture

"We don't do that stuff."

"What stuff?" I inquired to the person in the next seat.

Truthfully, I knew what he meant. I had just responded to his question about what I do with my standard elevator speech about helping leaders build cultures that deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change.

"We don't do that squishy culture stuff," he retorted.

The Myths about Organizational Culture

There are so many myths about corporate culture that the entire subject could easily be dismissed as another management fad run amok. Here are the five myths I hear most often when speaking with leaders about their organization:
  1. Culture is about making people feel happy. There is nothing wrong with being happy, but a culture that focuses exclusively on fun isn't a business. It's a party.
  2. Culture can't be defined and measured. The best organizations are intentional about defining their desired culture. And, it can be measured. Activities, results, and perceptions provide the leading and lagging indicators for calibrating and shaping for calibrating and shaping the culture.
  3. Culture is HR's responsibility. Asking your human resources team to own responsibility for the culture is a recipe for disaster. The examples of managers and employees nodding their head in approval during the HR training session -- and then doing things the way they've always done them back on the job -- are too numerous to list. HR can influence, but it can't own the culture.
  4. Culture costs too much money. If your idea of a great culture is providing exorbitant salaries, benefits, and perks, then yes, it can cost money. But many organizations have built a compelling culture on a budget. And a great culture should make you money -- not cost it.
  5. Culture was last year's initiative. The Samurai, Spartans, and elite fighting units of the U.S. Military share a rich tradition: a creed that unites them in a common culture. The military never stops training and reinforcing the creed that defines their culture. Why should you?

The Realities

Your culture isn't squishy. It is defined by the habits demonstrated in every situation regardless of the presence of anyone who is "in charge."

Southwest Airlines routinely unloads and reloads its airplanes in less time than its competitors. Wegmans consistently delivers exceptional customer service. Johnson & Johnson became the text-book example for how to respond in a crisis with its handling of the Tylenol crisis after a brand manager--not the CEO--made the decision to pull its product from the shelves. The right culture leads to tangible results.

Your culture is defined by its habits. The words on the wall posters, web site, and wallet cards in your company are basically identical as those of your competitors. No one actually says, "We strive to be mediocre and make our customers miserable."

The difference between organizations with great cultures and everyone else is the discipline to turn good intentions into action. Process, structure, training, reinforcement, and accountability create habits. A disciplined approach to culture affects every aspect of your operation--strategy and resource planning; operational processes and execution; and people.

Your culture can't be left to chance or ignored. Elite organizations are relentless and unwavering in defining and then paying attention to their culture. They know that any disruption to how the team works together creates friction that sucks the energy from the group and makes everyone less efficient and effective. When it stops being important to the leadership, others can hijack it for their own purposes.

Your best culture is the one that produces the results you want. There is no one right culture for every organization. Similarities may exist, and you should adapt ideas from others. But the culture you define and reinforce should be uniquely yours.

Every organization has a culture. The only question is whether you will disregard the myths and embrace the realities to create the one you need for the future.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. His keynote seminars and workshops are informative, engaging, and memorable. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit, email, or call 972-980-9857.