Corporate Cultures – Common Cultural Evaluation Misperceptions

StrategyDriven Corporate Cultures Article | Corporate Cultures - Common Cultural Evaluation MisperceptionsIn identifying organizationally shared values and beliefs, there are several common misperceptions that result in an invalid understanding of the actual corporate culture. These misinterpretations should be guarded against as cultural understanding serves as a foundation for many of management’s decisions.[wcm_restrict plans=”60697, 25542, 25653″]

Cultural Evaluation Misperceptions

The following are common errors made when determining the nature of organizational culture:

Equating documented values statements with the actual culture. As revealed in Corporate Cultures – Why Policies Don’t Match Actions, an organization’s documented values, policies, and goals often promote socially acceptable positions that deviate substantially from the actual beliefs reflected in leadership decisions and workforce actions. Therefore, it is erroneous to conclude that documented values equate to the organizations actual culture without other supporting, observable evidence.

Accepting corporate communications as a reflection of the actual culture. Verbal communications, like documented values, typically reflect socially acceptable positions and may not necessarily reveal the organization’s actual culture. While organization members are often bombarded with numerous values related communications, observable decisions and actions should be used to substantiate these assertions.

Correlating the ‘facts’ surrounding the organization’s legends and heroes as representative of the culture. People tend to impose their beliefs and values on past occurrences when creating an organization’s legends and heroes. Caution should be exercised when using these stories as representative of the culture and an independent, objective review performed to ascertain the true motivators and facts of the associated event’s decisions and actions. Legends and heroes exist when everything turns out well… ask whether the actions taken would be culturally acceptable if undesired results were achieved.

Organizational spend reflects true values. Somewhat more difficult to ascertain is the fallacy that the amount of resources dedicated to a particular value proposition equates to the organization’s actual values. Just because an organization dedicates significant resources to a given proposition does not necessarily mean it is committed to a successful outcome. For example, an organization may expend a great many resources on safety but have a far poorer safety record than comparable organizations that spend relatively little on safety. While some organizations are highly committed and expend a great deal of resources on the achievement of a values related initiative and fail, others make similar expenditures with no intention of succeeding. In this latter case, the spend is symbolic or a ruse but not reflective of the culture. Before equating spend with an organization’s culture, determine the strength of commitment by assessing leadership time; political clout; rewards and recognitions; change management; organization-wide involvement; breadth, frequency, and depth of communications; and organizational awareness and focus on initiative success.

Believing need or desire determines culture. On occasion, organization leaders identify certain cultural traits needed to achieve a desired outcome. That need however, does not automatically drive those particular cultural behaviors. In fact, the two are independent of each other because failure is an option. Desired outcomes can create a need for changing organizational culture but desired outcomes themselves do nothing to miraculously redefine the culture.

Associating long ago performance with today’s culture. Organizational cultures change over time because people change (positional changes, turnover, etcetera), business environments change (regulations, marketplace demands, etcetera), and societal values change (political, relational, etcetera). Consequently, cultural analyses need to consider a timeframe that is long enough to eliminate near-term efforts to demonstrate the perceived desired culture and short enough to be reflective of contemporary values and beliefs. In our experience, a one or two-year evaluation period tends to be optimal for slow-moving organizational cultures. Cultural assertions made using evidence in excess of the two-year timeframe, even for slow-moving cultures, should be treated with some suspect as to the accuracy of their reflection of the true contemporary corporate culture.

Using performance extremes to define the culture. Cultural assessments focus on norms – mean, median, and modes – because culture itself is a reflection of the shared values and beliefs of the organization’s members. While important to understand the norms, it is also important to understand the shape of the bell curve associated with those averages (when quantified). Identifying cultural characteristics based on the extremes, the outliers, is not reflective of the commonly shared values of the organization. Thus, cultural determinations based on the extremes are highly suspect and typically invalid.

Final thoughts…

Remember that actions speak louder than words (or documents). Cultural evaluators should seek to draw and validate their conclusions based on a variety of inputs – individual surveys, personnel interviews, document and data reviews, and activity observations – with preference given to observable decisions and actions. (See StrategyDriven Organizational Accountability articles: Evaluating Organizational Culture, part 1 of 3; Evaluating Organizational Culture, part 2 of 3; Evaluating Organizational Culture, part 3 of 3)

It’s important to understand that organization leaders and members of the workforce can have misperceptions about the organizations culture. In fact, misperceptions among the workforce may result in them culturally resisting organizational change. For example, the workforce may resist efficiency improvements if they equate organizational spend with safety and value safety above productivity. Consequently, it is important for leaders to recognize cultural misperceptions within the workforce and incorporate activities to mitigate or alleviate these misperceptions as a part of overall initiative implementation. (See StrategyDriven Corporate Cultures article, Overcoming Cultural Resistance to Change)[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember plans=”60697, 25542, 25653″]

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About the Author

Nathan Ives, StrategyDriven Principal is a StrategyDriven Principal and Host of the StrategyDriven Podcast. For over twenty years, he has served as trusted advisor to executives and managers at dozens of Fortune 500 and smaller companies in the areas of management effectiveness, organizational development, and process improvement. To read Nathan’s complete biography, click here.

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