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The Magic - and despair - of Culture

Culture is a fine thing. Where would we be without it? Without culture there would be no cheese, no kimchi (you fashionable person, you) and no beer. No beer! And without culture there would be no business.

Every society has its culture, and every organization is its own society, each with implicit mores.

Think for moment, would you behave as you do in the gym in the office; finding a space by the pot plants and stretching your calves on the water cooler? Would you take the necessary office behaviour home, calling a six o’clock meeting to discuss the prognoses for changing breakfast cereals over the next few months? Or take home life into the office? Well, probably not.

Organizational culture is distinct. And what is important to understand - and the majority of businesses miss – is that culture is a bottom-up, identity driven, process. Just because a business says “Our culture is about being razor focussed on achieving excellent customer results at the best possible return” don’t make it so. If the people in that business don’t buy into its message or its leadership, it isn’t going to happen.

One of the best exemplars from history is British Leyland, which, on paper, should have been a storming success, merging the best of British Motor Holdings with Leyland Motors.

The culture was to be innovative, powerful and relevant. One super business to rival the American giants.

But the two dovetailing companies mistrusted each other from the start. Then, 12 months later three different unions halted production of a Triumph saloon when they couldn’t agree amongst themselves who should tighten the screws on the dashboard. Unions fell out, there was a schism on the Board, and the bosses and workers neither believed nor liked one another. The culture rotted. History shows us a British Leyland culture of strikes, works to rule and shoddy production from uninvested and unloved workers.

Regardless of what the business wants the culture to be. It is the people who make it. If the Board say “green” and the workers say “yellow” the culture is yellow everywhere except in the Boardroom and among its dangling tendrils of acolytes. Of course it is the Board that pays for the company adverts, which explains why they often look risible in retrospect.

So the next time you hear a CEO say “Our culture is one of respect, tolerance and inclusion” (or anything else), check with the cleaners first to see if it is true.


Does that leave management powerless? Of course not. It has a massive influence on organizational culture via its behaviour. It can seed the soil from whence the culture will grow. Leadership can make the ground fertile or sour depending on its actions.

Culture is amoral too. It doesn’t have to be eco-friendly or pro-kittens to be successful. You may be an Insurance Company, selling policies where the first 13 months of subs go straight into the salesperson’s bank account, where targets are high, failure is not tolerated, life is cutthroat and success for the few is lucrative and self-centred. If that culture suits those coming on board it will work. The unsuccessful salespeople will hop back on the recruitment carousel and find work elsewhere. The ground is set, and culture follows.

As for the power of management here. Incoming leadership can rip up the existing culture (“We aren’t having this kind of reckless, selfishness culture in this business anymore”) and it can sow seeds of kindness and love. But they might not grow. Whole industries can have cultures too, which can choke out those going against a trend.

Of course the opposite is true too. Goretex, with their philosophy of ‘Money is just a form of applause for a job well done’, have helped nurture not just their own fabulous culture, but others too. They have helped throw mud in the eye of the outmoded ‘Apprentice-style’, approach where “It’s business” is seen as a phrase to be addended to “All’s fair in love and war.”

As somebody in a Melbourne Boardroom was once keen to point out to me “Google is tribal”. And to be a Googler is an aspirational thing for many.

But tread carefully; as technology loses some of its lustre, as fashions change, as aspirations wane, tribes become less attractive to incomers. When changing identities are not reflected in the business, the culture stagnates and degrades, more quality people leave a business than those running to its flag. A Board striving for stasis will fail no matter how hard it tries. Set the conditions correctly though and a company can see its culture thrive, its people develop and its finances flourish.

Culture is all about psychology, because culture is all about people and indeed, emanates from them. If you need help, understanding, fixing or improving a culture, mail us at

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