You Can’t Change Business Culture

Besides in hearts and minds?

More than ever in our history people talk about “improving culture” in and outside of business. Unfortunately, it can’t be done, so there’s a great deal of wasted effort and stagnation. I’ll explain.

There’s no such thing as culture, strictly speaking. A culture is the result of a group of people’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. It’s an effect, not a thing. So, if you want to change the culture, you have to either change the people in it or add and remove people.

For example, racism is not in culture, it’s in people. When racist people get together, agree on racist things, and support each other’s racist actions, it creates a racist culture amidst those people. But trying to change the racism at the level of culture would be like trying to clean water downstream of a pollution source. You may feel like you’re making a difference, but you’re never dealing with the root cause. You might put up some anti-racism posters in their sight-line, but that’s an outside-in solution that you can imagine would have limited impact. If you have several hundred years to make the change, then that’s fine, but if you want to change your company culture quickly, you must go right to the source.

Can you see how it’s far more comfortable for us to think in terms of changing business culture rather than people? When you talk about changing people, they get offended.

“Are you trying to fix me?” “You think there’s something wrong with me?” “I’m a good person!”

This is why conversations in our world are inevitably about culture change rather than personal change, so as not to affront anyone’s comfortable, but distorted, self-image. This is especially true with the term business culture.

The price for that comfort, unfortunately, is that nothing changes. Have you noticed?

You can have all the company picnics, foosball tables, and employees of the month that you want. Those things certainly help create conditions favorable for people to change, but in the end culture in any context comes down to one thing:

What are the values of the group, in what way are people not embodying them, and what’s being done about it?

This is the hard question people don’t want to ask. It leads right to accountability, which terrifies most people. In a business, this means that you have written values that are thorough and go into pages of detail. Most company values are stick-figure arrangements of business cliché that serve no purpose, are half-heartedly embodied, and rarely referred to by leadership much less enforced.

A strong business culture is simply one where the values are rigorously defined and embodied through direct, truthful accountability conversations. A weak culture is one where values are poorly defined and not enforced. As said, there’s nothing to do with the culture, and everything to do with yourself and your people.

Ready to learn more about changing who you are as a person? Accountability, Metrics, Money, and Shame: Get Better Results by Living in Reality is an eleven-week course designed to help you understand why you do what you do and how to change—both in business and life in general. Everything kicks off on April 5, 2018. Learn more here.

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