Don’t Mistake A Fake Culture For the Real Thing

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Jan 28, 2019

“Fake culture” refers to all the surface level objects that people point to as culture. These are artifacts of culture which give clues into the deeper layers of culture. You may have heard the saying, “There is more than meets the eye.” That is a very good way to think about real culture. It goes beyond what you see around you.

Culture is NOT:

  • Foosball tables, flip flops and free beer Fridays
  • A fabulous set of values written on the walls
  • Colorful office walls, open concept workspaces and standing desks
  • A style of dress. Suits, uniforms, or hoodies and distressed jeans (how much did you pay for jeans with holes?!) may be the prevailing dress code, but are not culture
  • Fun food and free drinks (no – a whiskey bar is lots of fun and totally on trend, but it’s not culture!)
  • Nap pods and meditation rooms
  • Quirky CEOs with cool concepts and hot-off-the-press books
  • Slogans, T-shirts or campaigns

Most people can agree on the fact that culture exists and that it influences behavior in organizations. What is not so widely agreed upon is the precise definition of organizational culture. Getting culture defined correctly matters, because a lot of time and resources are poured into things that are falsely labeled culture – and when the real issues aren’t being addressed, there won’t be real results.

At the foundational level, culture is the collection of deeply held beliefs and assumptions that drives behavior within organizations or groups of people. It’s why we do what we do in different situations — culture is how you are expected to behave and comes from shared beliefs through common learning. Ideally these “unwritten rules” correspond to the stated values and beliefs of the organization.

How culture is formed

Many leaders say they want an innovative workplace culture where people are free to take risks, try things and make mistakes. But if a team member is publicly chastised by the leader, what kind of culture is being created? The team member learns that he will be humiliated if he makes a mistake. So next time there is an opportunity to take a risk, he will apply what he learned and avoid it. This is why culture is a leadership responsibility (not owned by HR, or a culture team). While everyone plays a part in creating culture, leaders set the tone — and it’s fascinating how often a leader’s words and actions are unintentionally out of sync.

For example, an executive we were coaching was in a meeting with over a dozen attendees. The person leading the meeting was not well prepared and hadn’t set clear objectives. This leader got frustrated with the time that was being wasted and the lack of productivity. So, she took over the meeting and made sure that the needed outcomes were achieved. Unfortunately, those actions had unintended consequences. The team member leading the meeting didn’t learn how to improve, he learned that if he didn’t do it the right way someone else would do his job. Instead of stepping up, next time he’ll step back.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced.” quote=”Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced”]. Imagine that you are in a meeting, and you believe that it’s polite to say, “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Someone sneezes and you are the only one to say, “Bless you.” You’ve just learned that with this group of people, that is not the correct behavior. No one had to teach this to you, it’s learned through observation and experience. Leaders can talk about their ideal culture, but it’s only through shared learning and consistent action that culture gets created.

Can you change culture?

Culture change is possible but not easy. If you think about culture as organizational habits, it helps you see that these consistent patterns of behavior that are learned over time don’t change just because a new set of values gets rolled out! Think about how hard it is for you to change a habit. Now imagine that multiplied by all the employees in an organization.

Change starts with understanding. Are you sure that you clearly understand the culture that is driving the behaviors in your organization? A rapid way to ensure that you get a complete assessment of your organization is by conducting a quantitative survey combined with qualitative focus groups and interviews. The survey you choose should ask questions that expose the underlying behavioral expectations for the organization, not just give you everyone’s opinion on wearing shorts to work on summer Fridays!

We are currently working with the new CEO of a long-standing organization that is facing external challenges that are forcing the need for significant change within the organization to remain relevant in the marketplace. Our client just started within the past 60 days and wants to know what the real culture of his organization is, so he can focus his change efforts on the behaviors he needs for the new strategy to be the most successful. Within 4 weeks of starting the cultural assessment, we will be able to have conversations about real cultural change that can have a rapid and meaningful impact on the execution of strategic initiatives and result in a successful future for the organization.

Take time to understand

I have worked with many CEOs as they have come on board and/or attempted to make shifts in business strategy. In my experience, the more successful leaders are the ones like our current client that take the time and make the effort to clearly understand the culture driving the business they lead, then purposefully shape the culture to meet the needs of the business strategy they are moving towards. If you mistake the fake factors for real culture, then you will not address the underlying beliefs and assumptions that truly drive culture.

Don’t be fooled by fake culture. Be aware and be intentional. Accurately assess your organization’s culture and get clear on where you stand today. Then, decide if that culture will serve you well in executing your strategy or if it will hinder your rapid and successful progress. This knowledge will provide the foundation for success as you determine your next steps.

This article was first published on Human Synergistics.