You Must Break Free of Your Culture

If you can't break the stranglehold of your culture, your future will be lost in a world of transformational change.

By my definition, culture is the house rules. An edgier definition comes from David Balestracci: “Quite simply, culture is created by what is tolerated….Your current processes are perfectly designed to get the results they are already getting." In any case, culture is the most powerful force in your organization. It can bring greatness, or cause your failure as you move away from yesterday, through today, to tomorrow. As more and more organizations need to move to the transformational change that is tomorrow, their culture (if it is an addiction to the status quo) becomes the greatest challenge they face. I’ve been speaking on this subject for many years. Slowly but surely, I’m moving from theory to reality. Early on in my consulting career, I’d proudly state, “we’re going to change the culture.” After having my rear end handed to me after each unsuccessful attempt at cultural change, I retreated to a more realistic but no more possible approach, suggesting that to “change the culture” you must “change the people (educate, rehab, motivate, etc. each individual) or change the people (start anew – with new folks). See also: Does Your Culture Embrace Innovation?   In late 2015 and early 2016, I enjoyed an aha moment. Working to rehab a very troubled organization (its culture), filled with good and talented people who had become divided and moved to their lowest common denominator, I realized the best hope was to agree on a purpose (why), shared values and a unifying vision. With this as the starting point, progress continued as each team member individually committed to grow her skills (abilities) and as all members of the group chose collaboration (improved communication/relationships) on common goals and tasks. In the April 2016 edition of the Harvard Business Review, the cover story reinforced my theory by stating, “You can’t fix culture, just focus on your business and the rest will follow.” I now say, “Amen! Vindication!” (HBR will never quote me, but I am delighted to be able to quote them.) In 2012, a graphic artist created a cultural continuum slide that I could use to demonstrate the evolution of organizational culture. The slide was formatted on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid. From the base of the pyramid, the five levels (steps) are: physiological (survival) needs, safety (security) needs, belonging (acceptance) needs, esteem (achievement) needs and, finally, at the pinnacle of the pyramid, self (actualization) fulfillment need. To facilitate the “story of culture,” I chose an individual or couple who best personified each step on the pyramid. I also added one action word that supported the culture created by the personality styles of the individuals or culture. What follows is the rest of the story:
  1. Survival – Fred Flintstone – React. Fred was a simple leader right for a simple time. His goal was survival for himself and his family. Planning wasn’t important. Being able to react was. When he came face to face with a sabertooth tiger, his ability to react was all important. His family followed his lead.
  2. Security – Jim Anderson, an insurance agent (played by Robert Young on Father Knows Best) – Do. Jim was the personification of the OWG (old white guy in charge) in the post-WWII business place and community. The Greatest Generation fought for our security and came home to work hard to create the economic security we all so desired. If you worked for Jim and did as you were told, you would be secure (taken care of). You could work 40 years and get a gold watch.
  3. Acceptance – Archie Bunker – Think. Remember, this show came at the beginning of the social revolution where baby boomers fought the status quo -- as a group and as individuals. Remember the Vietnam war protests, Woodstock, civil rights, demands for both race and gender equality, assassinations (MLK, JFK, RFK, etc.) and the chants of “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “If it feels good do it.” Archie in the stereotype was the next generation of Jim Anderson. He wanted to be the “boss” (to think for his family). Unfortunately for Archie, his followers changed. Dingbat, Meathead and Little Girl were not compliant (they wanted to think on their own). Archie’s clan demanded freedom at the risk of security. Archie’s frustration and anger (I believe) resulted from the fact that he did not enjoy the resources nor respect that was given to Jim Anderson.
  4. Achievement -- Cliff and Clair Huxtable -- Create. This was the feel-good story post the social revolution of Archie’s day. Cliff and Clair represented the hope and change of a more diverse world. Their drive was to ensure their children had every opportunity to be all that they could be regardless of place, color or gender. They were the hope that remains on the horizon of our country and world. They were creating a new social order: new culture, new possibilities. Creativity provides much greater possibilities than does discipline/compliance. A hundred years from now, people will know that Bill Gates understood technology and created computer operating systems that made him and Melinda Gates the richest and most generous people in the world.
  5. Self-Fulfillment – Jane and George Jetson – Imagine. George and Jane lived in a future that we are only now starting to imagine, hoping that what their life was can be real. George and Jane, their daughter Judy, son Elroy, Rosie (their robot maid) and Astro their dog lived large in the universe they occupied. Theirs was a “futuristic utopia.” George worked two days a week about one hour a day. Travel and technology were their world. If it could be imagined, it could be done. Understand that in a century people will reminisce about Steve Jobs, who imagined the possibilities in technology and artificial intelligence and forever changed the world!
Know that your organizational culture can be the most powerful force available to you in the competitive marketplace and the world as it is going to be. If you can leverage your culture for good and change, you will enjoy great success. If you are unable to break the stranglehold that some organizational cultures exercise over their own status quo, your future will be lost in a world of transformational change. See also: How ‘Cascades’ Can Build Work Culture   The lesson, in my opinion, to be learned here – is that your culture is defined by its performance and its people. Be certain that both are the best that they can be. As a leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to keep toxins out of the environment in which you live and operate. Don’t ignore reality just because things are going well. Culture can make you or break you! Keep your finger on your organization’s pulse! When something doesn’t look or “feel right” discover the truth. Address problems. Don’t ignore the painful. Your brand and your culture can be your most valuable assets.

Mike Manes

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Mike Manes

Mike Manes was branded by Jack Burke as a “Cajun Philosopher.” He self-defines as a storyteller – “a guy with some brain tissue and much more scar tissue.” His organizational and life mantra is Carpe Mañana.


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