In fact, there are good reasons not to brush off corporate culture as an airy-fairy topic – reasons of economic and often strategic importance.
Not only is corporate culture becoming more and more of a key competitive factor in the much-quoted “war for talents”; ignoring the culture often also results in companies paying the price in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. And thus also money.
What do we mean by culture?
Culture is often described as the sum of patterns relating to behaviour, perception and evaluation. It is to some extent a set of rules that was never consciously decided but is complied with by the majority of members, without closer scrutiny.
These patterns and rules come about when actions and assumptions are repeated and over time prove to be useful and promising. So, patterns of culture always have a purpose. Or at least had a purpose at some stage. But the world moves on, and what may have been a sensible reaction at one point then can become dysfunctional over time.
Why this pre-occupation with culture?
We’re currently experiencing times of a very dynamic nature, which can be described by the acronym VUCA. This intense pace also shortens the “half-life” of the culture over time: ingrained patterns and behaviours, basic assumptions about the business, markets and strategies that often form the basis of a company’s success are being overtaken by reality at a faster and faster speed. And are consequently becoming potential stumbling blocks.
For instance, entrenched assumptions about predictability that were once considered necessary for stability come at the expense of flexibility and the capacity to act in this increasingly dynamic phase. Basic assumptions and attitudes concerning leadership, power and hierarchy that are rooted in the heyday of Taylorism prevent people from taking responsibility and managing themselves. And established, unchallenged incentivisation practices fail to impress a new generation of employees. Revising the culture starts with making these patterns visible and open to discussion.
Culture, as an orientation system that has grown over time, tends toward inertia. Culture engenders identity and stability. And hence generally opposes change. Who doesn’t know of cases where post-merger integrations, major IT processes or entire strategy processes have ultimately failed or at least become much more difficult because of the culture? In change management, the culture is often the silent spoilsport. My experience as a consultant has taught me this: profound changes in organisations are only successful if the culture also changes. And this is much easier if we make an effort to keep this culture in view.
To demonstrate the type of dynamics we must expect when we try to consciously influence the culture, here is an analogy.
The culture of grammar
In many respects, culture is like the grammar of a language: we’re hardly ever aware of its rules (hand on heart: who can tell a transitive verb from an intransitive one?), and yet we implement these rules as a complete matter of course. Just like our culture, we learn these rules through socialisation and emulation. And as is the case with culture, it is very difficult to follow the rules of grammar without making any mistakes if you haven’t grown up with them. And anyone who is not entirely comfortable on how to use these rules is automatically exposed as an outsider.
Grammar, too, has grown over time and therefore represents assumptions and values from the past, which can become disruptors when framework conditions change. The current discussion about gender-neutral language in German is an illustrative example.
The masculine-generic plural form makes women and girls invisible. At the time when these rules originated, they were a typical reflection of the predominant gender roles. Women were also hardly visible in social life, and if they were, it was mostly through their association with men or fathers.
The social transformation of the last few decades has also changed our outlook on gender roles tremendously. There is now broad consensus in almost all western societies that women and men should have the same opportunities and rights and should ideally take part in social, business and cultural life as equal actors. In practice, however, this equal treatment is as yet often unrealised.
What is also apparent is that established assumptions in terms of parenting responsibilities, gender-based professions or ascribed talents are blocking the way to this desired equal treatment. And that a grammar rule which makes half the population invisible can no longer be reconciled with these social values, but rather reproduces gender inequalities.
The pressure resulting from this has led to many attempts to solve this dissonance. But the initial reaction of a large part of the population to the means used has been one of cynicism, rejection and irritation. Despite the generic masculine being in undeniable conflict with the fundamental values of our time, large sectors of society, including women, are not prepared to question these rules to this day. Television moderators who use gender-neutral language are receiving hate mail or are becoming targets of ridicule. So, what’s going on here?
It’s the culture, stupid!
What we can see here are typical phenomena of a consciously managed change in culture:
The new is initially critically scrutinised by a wide group of people, and even the undeniable justification for this change reduces the size of this group only very gradually. At the same time, increasing circles of people are becoming used to the new, and it is no longer triggering shock and irritation, and in yet other groups gendering starts off by being trendy and then becomes the norm. We’re seeing different speeds of adjustment, and this is leading to tension.
It’s the culture stupid!
But even for those who have joined the bandwagon of linguistic change, it is often not easy to incorporate the new approach into everyday life and let it become routine. It takes time to unlearn and replace ingrained linguistic patterns, and it will probably take a complete generation for gender-neutral language to become standard practice.
What does this mean in respect of corporate culture?
The example of gender-neutral language illustrates that transformation of patterns cannot simply be decided. The process is fraught with emotion, triggers resistance, and needs time and consistency.
Different speeds of change can lead to a long phase during which the old falls away and no longer provides stability, while the new is not yet sufficiently tangible.
And precisely the same applies to conscious transformation of patterns in companies. When these become dysfunctional, the organisation is faced with growing inefficiency. Dysfunctional patterns of culture can prevent creativity and an assumption of responsibility, destroy motivation or impede the company’s capability to act. In this case, action is needed.
And this action requires a clear perception in order to question what comes naturally. It requires common vision in terms of understanding and embracing the change, responsible management of fear and ambivalence and, last but not least, perseverance.
The culture is not something that can simply be decided. But we can consciously influence it by creating an organisational setting in which new behavioural patterns, evaluations and explanations make sense. It is hard but rewarding work, which companies will not be able to avoid in the long run if they want to be successful in the future.