Culture’s Cogs

Synopsis: Imperatives, expectations and feedback are the mechanisms through which management’s desire for high performance are translated into a functioning corporate culture.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been studying corporate cultures over recent months. My goal is to understand how corporate cultures come to be and what management teams can do to shape positive cultures (i.e. cultures that improve quality and productivity while simultaneously lifting employee engagement, morale and satisfaction).

Every organization has a corporate culture and while some are healthy and robust, others can only be described as dysfunctional. Most senior managers recognize the power of culture but not all have an appreciation of the mechanisms through which cultures form and propagate. As a result they lack the tools needed to influence their cultures in positive ways and for better or worse, the organization’s culture is left to form through its own devises. Even some of the business schools seems to be a bit at sea on this issue. A few years ago I watched a video published by a top tier school in which the professor gave a 30 minute presentation about how you shape “positive” business cultures by making sure you fire people on a regular basis. To me that fear based approach is counterproductive and inappropriate for the vast majority of business contexts. Perhaps even worse, a recent MBA grad I interviewed noted that the topic of corporate culture was omitted throughout their entire program.

Simplistic Management Thinking

Figure 1 – Simplistic thinking

A lack of understanding of how cultures form is a common problem. Some organizations take a very simplistic view (Figure 1). Management issues an edict and then they assume that everyone from top to bottom will follow through. A catchy slogan, a pep talk by the CEO and voila, an organization is transformed. More mature thinkers will quickly recognize that such an approach doesn’t work and that empty proclamations from management don’t drive staff level behaviours. By the time people get back to their desks and are faced with the politics and challenges of their jobs the catchy slogan is quickly forgotten. Many of us will remember the mission & vision statements that were popular in the 1990’s. Staff and management collaborated to carefully craft an expression of their shared vision for the company. Copies were lovingly printed, framed, displayed, distributed and forgotten about.

That then leaves us with an important question: What are the mechanisms through which management’s desire for a good culture translate into specific actions at the individual, team, group, department or divisional levels?

In analyzing the discussions I have with people participating in my research three key elements have surfaced. These three interconnected components can be though of as a set of gears that connect management’s desire for a positive culture with the specific staff actions that drive productivity, innovation, teamwork and positive behaviours. The three gears in the gearbox are:

  1. Imperatives – Culture is a mirror of management’s thinking and behaviours and “imperatives” are the origins of those behaviours. In short, imperatives are the core values that the management team deeply believe in and hence the foundation for the decisions they make when running the business.
  2. Expectations – While the imperatives set the basis for management decision making they are also the basis upon which leaders communicate their expectations to the staff. Expectations tell people what management wants from them and the standards they are to achieve. They are the communications and subtle interactions from management that provide the framework of norms and behaviours that management deems to be the benchmark of performance for the individuals involved.
  3. Feedback – Setting expectations tells people what is needed, but feedback keeps the message alive. Positive reinforcement helps encourage the continuation of desired behaviours and constructively expressed, and carefully timed, guidance helps coach and develop staff’s abilities where there are opportunities for performance to be improved.

These three cogs (Figure 2 below) are what can be thought of as “living behaviours” rather than “procedural steps”. They are spontaneous attitudes and reactions rather than formalized processes to be followed. They are a real and constant presence in the work environment and everyone who is a part of the organization senses and is aware of their presence. They are constantly manifested in the decisions management make, the actions they take and the ways in which leaders interact with their teams. There are no written formulas, procedures or flowcharts, the application of the cogs is dynamic and contextually driven as the evolving reality changes the situations leaders find themselves working within.

Culture's Cogs

Figure 2 – Culture’s Cogs
(click for larger image)

Of course, getting the three cogs right and getting them to mesh properly isn’t easy. Getting a senior management team to agree a shared set of imperatives and to actually apply them in their decision making is hard enough. Expressing expectations and then providing appropriate feedback are further skills in their own right. Add to that the hierarchy that exists in a larger organization and you have the additional challenge of transmitting the messages through middlemen and down to workers who may be many layers below the CEO and C suite. In a single blog post I don’t think I’ll have space to cover all of the relate issues. Instead I will write a set of follow up posts that explore the three cogs in more depth. What I will do in this post however is look at some of the classic mistakes senior managers and their teams often make.

Often the source of the dysfunctional in an organization culture is management themselves. Perhaps because the concept of “culture” is so poorly understood, managers are often the ones grinding the gears and stripping off the teeth. There are many ways in which managers throw spanners into the works. Among the most common:

  1. Indifference – Management don’t have clear imperatives and they never articulate their expectations or feedback
  2. Inconsistency – Different managers have different imperatives and staff become confused over what the core values are
  3. Complex messaging – Managers are unable to articulate their imperatives, expectations or feedback clearly
  4. Violations – Managers say one thing but when the chips are down do something completely different
  5. Misaligned incentives – Poorly constructed incentives programs (bonuses, awards, etc) shape behaviours that are counter productive
  6. Broken trust – Management take actions that shake the confidence of the staff have in management and hence break the relationship of trust that is needed. Common ways to break the trust include berating people for no apparent reason, being seen to act out of self interest at the expense of the rest of the team (e.g. management paying themselves large bonuses while laying off staff and cutting pay) or continual flip-flopping on key decisions.

Every CEO wants their organization to be a well oiled machine and the three cogs I outline above are the gearbox that has the potential to transfer the power of senior manager’s thinking down to where the rubber meets the road (i.e. to the staff levels where work gets done). Get your gearbox right and the power transferred can propel the organization forward. Get it wrong (crunch, grind or strip your gears) and you are in for a herky-jerky ride.

For the other parts in this series of blog posts, please see the following links:

  1. Culture’s cogs – Cog 1 – Imperatives
  2. Culture’s cogs – Cog 2 – Expectations
  3. Culture’s cogs – Cog 3 – Feedback

See also

  1. Corporate culture – The invisible force that shapes organizational performance (an introduction to the role cultures play in organizations)
  2. Pride of workmanship – A look at how putting the focus on quality also drives employee morale.
  3. Everything is (not always) awesome – A look at the importance of giving feedback
  4. RIP ideas – What happens when a culture goes stale

External reference links

  1.  The 9 worst Missions Statements of All Time