Corporate Culture – Part 1

Culture is a powerful force in any human system. It establishes the norms of behavior and acts as a reference point for the expectations we have of each other and ourselves. While we are all used to the idea of culture in our public societies (cultures driven by national identity, religious affiliation, generational groups and /or fashion), culture in the workplace gets less attention. While the phase “corporate culture” is banded around, few organizations really have a grasp of what it is, how powerful it can be or how to influence it. In the following series of blog posts we’ll take a look at what culture is, how it works and how corporate culture can be a powerful force that shapes the outcomes a project attains.

Culture is an invisible force that has the potential to shape the way we see the world, the way we behave and the decisions we make. In the most extreme of cases, culture can cause people to act with a zeal that pushes them into the most extreme of actions. Of course, for most of us culture is much more benign. There are norms of behavior that we comply with without really realizing, but we don’t allow our culture to become the defining platform upon which every action we take is predicated.

At an organizational level, corporate culture influences behaviors in the workplace. It helps define what’s important to the organization and what is not. It establishes the dynamics that drive the way business is done and it shapes the expectations team members have of each other. As such, corporate culture is a significant factor in the overall context within which a project exists.

From my own working experiences and from the discussions I have with my students, it’s clear that there is a diverse set of corporate cultures out there. While some organizations are able to instil a sense of personal accountability in their workers, others are not. While some organizations are able to place an emphasis on quality others have allowed indifference and lax attitudes to stand in the way. While some organizations promote teamwork as the organizational norm, others have allowed individual competition to disrupt the concept of collaboration towards a shared goal.

Pulling out trends and themes from the conversations I’ve had with people on this issue, it’s apparent that some corporate cultures encourage the types of behaviors that can increase the chances of real project success, while others are pulling in the opposite direction. The following list outlines some of those themes:

Negative dynamics (behaviors that reduce the chances of project success):

  1. Sales centric cultures (e.g. committing to anything despite the realities of resource constraints and other commitments)
  2. Politically driven cultures (e.g. promoting the well connected rather than the capable)
  3. A BS based culture (e.g. allowing hype and buzzwords to trump knowledge and expertise)
  4. Fear driven cultures (e.g. allowing bullies to rule the roost)
  5. An exploitive culture (e.g. squeezing as much out of people as you can for the benefit of a few and to the detriment of others)
  6. Indifferent cultures (e.g. turning a blind eye to problems and allowing non-performance to slide)
  7. Arrogance based cultures (e.g. promoting the idea that we are the best without realizing that the world is changing and ideas from outside may be better than those internally)
  8. Secretive cultures (e.g. a track record of being overly secretive or having poor internal communications)

Positive dynamics (attitudes and behaviours that help increase the chances of project success)

  1. The culture of excellence (e.g. having high expectations of quality, knowledge and craftsmanship)
  2. A customer focused culture (e.g. placing the focus on understanding the customer and working hard to meet their needs)
  3. A culture of accountability (e.g. the expectations that people will own their work and take personal responsibility for it)
  4. A team culture (e.g. an environment in which teamwork is valued above individual heroics)
  5. Participatory cultures (e.g. an environment in which all members of staff are engaged and contributing rather than having centralized command and control)

Where the negative dynamics have been allowed to dominate, the already challenging job of delivering a successful project can become incrementally more difficult. That doesn’t mean organizations with a negative corporate culture will always fail. Sometimes sheer determination and the heroic efforts of a few committed heroes can push something through. What it does typically mean however is increased stress for everyone involved, inefficiencies for the organization as a whole and a greater risk that what was delivered isn’t really a success.

In the next post we’ll look at where corporate cultures come from… Read part 2