What Is This Thing Called Culture?

A recent post on LinkedIn discussed the reasons Publix was cited as the best place to work among very large companies. Having had dialogue with HR executives from Publix I sense a considerable amount of pride they feel when they tell people where they work. And since the award was the result of random polling of employees, rather than a carefully crafted mission or culture statement that was intended to make Publix look good it has credence. The organization is privately held… by employees. So that may be a reason for their positive reactions. Owners tend to want to maximize the positive PR, since shoppers will prefer stores where they are treated well by people who seem to be happy to be there. But what role does this thing called culture actually play in eliciting the behavior it wants?
Culture is like the water fish swim in. It has a major impact on the lives of the denizens even though they are not aware of it. If you ask a fish why the water is so blue you would probably get the response “the what?” So, if the setting in which employees work does impact their attitudes (and research indicates it certainly does) how do you define and evaluate an organizational culture? Having co-authored the book “Rewarding Performance Globally” with Fons Trompenaars, leading cross-cultural researcher and guru, I became a student of the relationship between organizational culture and workforce culture. I teach a Global Workforce Management course for DePaul U. in their MSHR and MBA programs and focus on the issues created when someone with a specific cultural orientation enters an organization with its own cultural orientation.

If the organization has a culture that results in rewards being tied to individual performance, but an employee has been socialized in a culture that is collectivist, there is a difference of perspective that may impact that person’s acceptance of the prevailing culture. It will likely impact whether they choose to stay with the organization and perform well. People will be inclined to behave in a manner that seems to be encouraged by the organization’s reward system. Investment bankers almost brought the economy down with instruments that they created and were richly rewarded for. Regrettably for the banks what the asked for (by rewarding it) turned out in many cases to be disasters. Wells Fargo employees exhibited fraudulent behavior because the pressure to meet new account goals was so intense. “What you measure and reward you most surely will get more of” is a principle management should consider when eliciting patterns of behavior. No one knows how the employees felt when they took these actions, but one might surmise those with strong moral compasses probably were not happy with their actions.

So how does an organization define the type of culture it believes will be optimal? Even more importantly how does one define culture? After sitting in many client meetings discussing culture I believe defining it is one of the most daunting challenges management faces. Numerous shelves dedicated to culture exist in most bookstores and libraries. The advice varies from encouraging behavior that emulates Genghis Khan to emulating Jesus. And how an organization creates the culture it desires is not clear. One of the findings that comes out of the extensive research is that management must exhibit the behaviors it wants employees to exhibit. If a multinational pays commission on foreign business that was obtained by bribing a government official it sends the message that business results take priority over lawful behavior. If managers get results by treating their employees like serfs that also sends a signal. And if the first step taken by an organization facing an economic downturn is to downsize the workforce it sends the message that employees are its most disposable, not its most valuable, asset. No matter what mission statements, policy statements or cultural definitions say they must be made real by behaving consistently with what they prescribe.

Perhaps Publix could not define its culture specifically if asked. But if the example set by management is consistent with how it wishes to conduct business and the employees can accept the direction provided it may not be all that important. And the fact that the #1 ranking was based on a random sample of employee opinions there must be a very high level of acceptance. Other organizations may rank being the most profitable or being the organization with the most rapid escalation in stock price above being seen as a great place to work. That is their choice. But increases in stock price or profits are most often the result of the workforce being competent and committed to the success of the organization.

My first job out of undergraduate school was with Johnson & Johnson. As a part of the training for those in the executive development program the J&J Credo was explicated… so deeply that I wondered what the payback could be from the big investment in understanding it. When the Tylenol crisis happened and everyone reacted immediately in a manner consistent with what the Credo stood for it became clear to me. That was the organization’s way of defining and creating the culture it wanted. Since it is not possible to prescribe the behavior desired for every possible occurrence the Credo served as a nudge in the right direction. The one-page Credo does not look like a detailed description of the desired culture. But it seemed to produce the desired effect when it counted.