It appears that the topic of organizational culture has suddenly become fashionable and, to be honest, I’m not happy. As the owner of a company that specializes in helping leaders understand the organizational culture they both have and need, you would think this is very good news. However, the emergence of culture as a c-suite priority has created confusion about what we really mean by it. Every ‘consultant’ is suddenly an expert in this most intangible of topics and offering a different set of culture styles, dimensions, behaviours and models to help people ‘get it’. The problem is most of these experts don’t get it at all. Culture is not a set of observations and displayed behaviours. These are the observable consequences of your culture; the outcomes if you like.

But ‘culture’ is deeper 

When we look at an organisation and observe a lack of commitment we might conclude that employees are disengaged and need ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ in their roles. Well, maybe or maybe not; it depends on the fundamental values and beliefs of the individual. Some people do not care about ‘meaning’ and simply want to earn big bucks. I know this doesn’t fit the new world thinking about emotional connection and higher-level purpose but there are people and organisations for whom these virtues are simply irrelevant.

The key is to understand the deep beliefs that currently exist in your organisation by answering the question ‘why?’ Why can we not scale our business? Why do leaders behave like dictators? Why does my boss want to be involved in every decision I take? Why are we not embracing new ideas? Why do we lack discipline in our execution? Why do we allow leaders to behave badly?

Some of the beliefs you may uncover include; ‘we should avoid failure’, ‘leadership is about direction and supervision’, ‘we need clarity in our roles’ or ‘healthy competition brings out the best in people’

Only by understanding the deep beliefs about how we see the role of leadership (and no it’s not always the stereotype American ideal) can we unravel the practices & behaviours that we observe. And only by looking at this deep culture in the context of what we are trying to achieve can we understand how our culture enables or disables our execution. If our strategy requires us to align behind a meaningful purpose so be it, but if our strategy simply requires more competence and empowerment at the customer interface then this will also have a cultural root to it and corresponding solution.

Let’s stop using platitudes, stop making superficial judgements and start understanding our culture in a way that answers the question ‘why?’ and links it to strategic execution and delivering results. When you observe the prevalence of a behaviour you don’t want in your organisation, don’t judge it immediately, but rather ask yourself ‘why does this behaviour exist?’

Can you answer the question why?