If you’ve read 10 different posts on my blog, chances are you have read one on the subject of organizational culture. I have been quite focused on driving the point home that a quality culture must be intentional and consistently managed. It’s important to the success of any organization to have a plumb line that is values based and that acts as a reference point for your organizational behavior and strategy.

The interesting portion of culture is the manner in which people view it. It is much like the reproductive process in animals and humans. There is a set of “blueprints” that is attempted to be replicated for the sake of perpetuation. Procreation is a perfect example of genetic narcissism. It screams, “My blueprints are the best, so let’s pass that along.” Often times organizational culture takes on this self-centered approach and it completely destroys the entire purpose of culture.

Many leaders act as if culture becomes this sort of whipping post to “keep people in line.” If you don’t replicate, or better yet clone, yourself into how we express our culture then you have missed the cultural boat. There is a twisted expectation for people to mirror leadership to the letter in order for the culture to be “in place”.

Culture isn’t as much a thing as it is a context. Culture can’t be reduced to a list of rules and particular tasks that become nothing more than some feeble attempt at behavior management. It must be the medium in which things operate, not the process by which things operate.

Setting culture is establishing an atmosphere that encapsulates a set of values and guiding principles. It gives room to people so they are able to be authentic to themselves and still function within those boundaries. Culture is fluid and not prescriptive, or proscriptive for that matter.

When we make it about specific behavior, we box in the possibilities of what culture can produce. We place a cap based on our current understanding of culture and its expression. It leaves no room for innovation or creativity. Culture must be about values alignment and not about the manner in which someone aligns with the values. As long as all values (and values priorities) are honored, then the way in which it is done shouldn’t matter.

Everyone will have their own unique way of supporting your culture in a positive way. Let that happen. The organization gives structure to the culture, but the employees are the ones who own culture. If they don’t it’s not really culture, is it? Think of the culture of your country. There are elements that took place long before you were born and you had nothing to do with them. You still own that emotional investment in that part of your national culture in your heart. Organizations are no different.

I would love to hear your thoughts on culture being more contextual than behavior management. Are you more focused on identical reproduction or authentic expression of the talent in your organization?

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  • Great point you make about leaving room for the people to own the culture. So many organizations think of their own culture as the defined set of behaviors and fail to see the “underground” culture that grows where people are.

  • What’s your perspective on the Valve Handbook or of the work of Rob Bowley at 7digital ? Do you believe the changes they’ve instituted constitute an attempt to propagate a culture shift in their organisation ?

    Although there’s no enforcement of an XP culture at 7digital would you accept that Rob gone to significant lengths to ensure XP practices are undertaken at 7digital?

  • Great point to bring up Anthony. The folks at 7digital are doing something and they’re not hiding what they’re doing. You know what you’re getting into from the start. While that type of culture would not be one in which I would thrive or feel valued, there are some people who do. As long as the “shock” of it all doesn’t devolve into failure to respect one another, I think it could be completely viable. If this type of culture just becomes a cheap front for someone to be a jerk, then it’s enabling bad behavior and even worse leadership.

  • Lets say Dan Pink is right and the real values that motivate employees are: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Are Value and 7digital examples of the organisations where leadership has recognised those needs, instituting measures that deliver them to it’s employees? and given their publicised successes what does this mean for those attempting to make decisions regarding their own internal cultural ?

  • I love your points Anthony. All great questions. One could dissect the culture and success of 7digital to see what makes things tick there. One could also bring up the suggestion that perhaps the culture in that particular organization isn’t the primary driver of their success. Most meteoric rises for newbies attracts the top talent, so it’s a great place to establish your career. One could also ask if that culture is sustainable. It has helped put them on the scene, so to speak, but will that be what keeps them there?

    That being said, any company should look more internally to their own values and beliefs to determine their culture. Cloned cultures from other organizations rarely work due to a disconnect in values.

    Like I wrote in the post: Many leaders act as if culture becomes this sort of whipping post to “keep people in line.” If you don’t replicate, or better yet clone, yourself into how we express our culture then you have missed the cultural boat. There is a twisted expectation for people to mirror leadership to the letter in order for the culture to be “in place”.

    I appreciate the value you bring to this conversation!

  • I think we agree there’s a danger that if we self select and extrapolate particular case studies the risk the results will be bias towards our own preferred mechanisms of organisational evolution. Facebook’s attraction and resultant culture certainly appears to have fuelled by the mechanics of peer gravity.

    The notion of cloning though feels unnecessary pejorative. When Rob was previously at BBC Worldwide, similar mechanics to those now employed at 7digital operated, and there too it was measurably successful. Which would appear to indicate you can reproduce value forces in different organisations if you’re so motivated and insightful enough to understand how they truly operate. For companies like Hashrocket with controllable environments, establishing the tribal values which you wish to propagate (but remain localised to those environments) and making those clear to anyone considering joining does appear to establish shared values.

  • Thank you for sharing your insight and opinions on this subject Anthony. I think they highlight how diverse culture building can truly be.