Why Company Culture isn't a Myth

Guest Contributorby Lizz Pellet | Posted | Culture

Why Company Culture isn\'t a Myth

Yes, Virginia, there is a culture.

There seems to be a myth out there that company culture doesn’t exist. It’s just some Human Resources mumbo jumbo, a made up thing. Or that “culture” is what we talk about when a company’s products and services are unremarkable.

Funny thing is, when you think about remarkable companies, one of the first things you think of is their corporate culture — Zappos, Google, Starbucks, Whole Foods.

Of course on the flip side when you study some of the disasters in business, it also points to culture — Enron, NASA, Countrywide Financial.

What is organizational culture?

So let’s break it down. Every group has a culture. Look at the actual word: it’s the “cult-u-are”.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your book club, your congregation or your son’s midget football team. It’s not a vibe. It’s real, it’s behavioral and it exists. When you’re in it and it feels right, you fit, and when it’s uncomfortable, you don’t. It is as simple as that.

This is the side of Human Resources some professionals in the field don’t get. It’s not the coffee cup — payroll, benefits, labor law, union negotiations. It’s the air inside the coffee cup — it’s the organizational behavioral stuff, it’s the soft stuff.

Some folks just can’t see it, but others are trying to weave it into every leader’s thoughts and actions because the leaders set the tone, leaders create and decimate company culture every day.

This really isn’t fantasy, nor is it rocket science…well except in the case studies on NASA. That was rocket science with a complete breakdown of their purported “safety culture”.

As reported by NASA April 2013 Volume 7 Issue 3 they recognized something was drastically wrong in the organization, there was a cultural melt down if you will. (Ten years after the inflight breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia Space Transportation System Mission (STS-107), the memory of those astronauts—and of Apollo 1 in 1967, and Challenger in 1986—who died in the line of service continues to serve as a reminder to the Agency.)

Sifting through the hundreds of documents and studies published since each mishap, a recurrent theme of “safety culture” threads throughout thousands of words: the breakdown of safety culture, sustaining safety culture, changing safety culture…

Do leaders really create culture?

Leaders do create culture. After studying organizational culture for over 50 years, we have the empirical data to support this.

Edger Schein didn’t make this stuff up; Marvin Wiesbord, Peter Drucker, Peter Block and Warren Bennis can’t all be wrong, can they?

Of course not and this is not just theory or rhetoric.

It's the real behaviors and actions of people in a group that forms the culture. The term leader can be substituted for any term your organization uses for people who lead other people.


A company’s culture is made up of many things

Referring to your organization’s culture as just one thing, like “safety culture” is wrong and it gives culture a bad rap. Companies say, “We have a sales culture”, “We have a customer-centric culture”, “We have a safety culture”. They’re wrong.

All of those things are cultural attributes. It’s what makes up the organizational culture, but your culture is never just one thing.

Southwest Airlines, noted for their company culture, calls themselves “fast, fun and friendly”. Those are all cultural attributes at Southwest, and if you can’t get on board (pun intended) with living those attributes, or values, then you just don’t fit.

How many YouTube video do we have to see with flight attendants doing crazy, wacky things to prove this? It’s not just to get on the Ellen Show either. It’s real and it’s the behavioral norm.

Just because organizational culture is overstated and misunderstood doesn't mean it doesn't exist

I will agree that the term company culture is widely overstated and misunderstood, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. More often than not it just hasn’t been measured, with a quantitative, validated instrument.

I’m not talking about an employee engagement survey either — employee engagement is just another cultural attribute.

Metrics and measurement are where it’s at, or as they say in Total Quality Management (TQM), “Data talks and BS walks.” So until organizations start measuring their culture and understand who they are and more importantly who they are not, only then will they be in a position to hire for cultural fit.

But if you don’t have any data to prove you are a fill-in-the-blank culture, then you may not be who you think you are.

Intentionally Creating Your Organizational Culture

Leslie Whatley explains the concept and importance of culture.


Watch Now
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Intentionally Creating Your Organizational Culture

Leslie Whatley explains the concept and importance of culture.


Watch Now


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