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The 5 Myths of Culture

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Myth #1

One company, one culture.

This is the granddaddy of all myths. It comes from thinking of culture as a “thing”, something tangible akin to machinery or office space. It originates in management consultants and scholars adopting literal interpretations of early 20th century ethnography on so-called “primitive” societies.  We each belong to many cultures. Similarly, organizations are many cultures related to core business or technology, dominant professional groups, or meaningful events in its history, among many sources.

Myth #2

The leader creates the culture.

It's not that simple. Our collective -- and particularly US-centric -- hyperventilation over leadership’s outsize influence on culture masks a more nuanced and complex set of truths: leaders don’t do it alone. Founders and leaders need leadership teams and a committed workforce to put in place the business practices that proliferate and sustain cultural knowledge. Leaders have something to do with culture, of course, but cultures are not mirrors of the CEO or founder's personality or values. Much more is needed.

Myth #3

Culture is what we value.

Managers believe they can gain leverage over the workforce by substituting one set of values for another. But if it were that straightforward, having the organization adopt leadership's values would be as easy as getting your kids to adopt your values. Not so easy. Among several reasons why: it is hard to impose values unless they pre-exist in the organization (e.g. getting a software engineering organization to buy in to engineering-oriented values is much easier than getting buy in for, say, industrial manufacturing values); values are expectations, not behavior; and people don't always behave according to what they say they value. To reduce culture to values is to grossly oversimplify a highly complex phenomenon. No wonder so many culture interventions based on values go nowhere (except into the annals of corporate humor). 

Myth #4

Culture is how we treat each other.

How employees feel and behave is not culture, at least not in itself. It might be an expression or enabler or reaction to some underlying aspect of a culture, but it's the tip, not the iceberg. Employee attitudes and behavior is a reflection of entrenched and pervasive business practices and the dominant cultural logics that structure them. So better benefits, free food, or communications training won't move the needle on culture. These are surface interventions that don't address deeper phenomena.

Myth #5

The right culture will drive business performance.

If true, then why do "toxic" cultures (i.e. Wells Fargo; Goldman Sachs; Kay Jewelers) exceed Wall Street expectations? This myth was debunked decades ago when a significant number of firms lauded for their cultures later went out of business or saw significant earnings declines. Managers hold on to this myth even though establishing causal links between culture and business outcomes has never been adequately demonstrated, and even though much of the theory and methodology for doing so is deeply flawed. To reduce culture to the independent variable in economic performance is simply shoddy or myopic science that ignores decades of research suggesting otherwise. 

So if these are


what is true?


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