Need An Excuse Not To Change Your Culture?

Um, hold on a second, just let me close the door to my office.

The conversation was about to get a bit more interesting.I was on the phone with the Jan, the head of Human Resources of a privately held consumer products company.  The company had notched 102 straight years of profit- until this last year.  It was their first losing year ever.

I was working with them to assess their current state, with a special focus on the company culture. Before my meeting with Jan, I’d already interviewed four of her colleagues.

One red flag I’d been alerted to was the company annual performance review.In the last review cycle, every single employee had been rated as either “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations”.Something didn’t add up.

Every single person meets or exceeds performance, yet the company has its worst year ever.

Jan closed the door, and took herself off of speakerphone.

I was hoping she’d be tell it to me straight.Jan said, You need to understand, we are a very family-oriented company here.

I waited for Jan to continue.  The pause lengthened into a silence.  Nothing.

I asked, When you say “family-oriented”, what does that mean to you?Another long pause.

Well, you know, people are really nice here.  It’s a really nice place to work. Jan was having a hard time.  Luckily, my earlier meetings had clued me into what the elephant in the room was. I inquired,So, when you say people are nice, are you saying that people have a hard time addressing conflict or disagreement in a candid way?


The irony was not lost on me.  Jan was so uncomfortable with candor that she couldn’t even tell me the company had issues with conflict and candor.

And, yes, she was the head of HR.But what really struck me about this conversation wasn’t  Jan’s conflict-avoidance.It was her use of the phrase:You need to understand, we are a very family-oriented company here.If I had a dollar for each time a client has started a sentence with, “You have to understand, we are a (insert adjective here) company”, I’d be a very rich man.When someone says “We are a ____ company”, what are they actually saying?They’re saying:

  • This is our Organizational DNA.

  • This is why we think and act the way we do.

  • This is who we are.

  • We can’t change.

In other words, they’re blaming their problems on their culture.  Culture has been defined as “the way things get done”. People inside of a culture share a common set of mind-sets, attitudes and beliefs. They know who has the title, and who has the power. They know how things work on paper, and how things really work.

As ethereal as culture seems, it has a tremendous impact on daily behaviors and results. In fact, it’s so powerful that Peter Drucker once famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”When people state, “We are a _____ company”, they are talking in code.  It’s a way to deny and avoid big issues that no one wants to address openly.  It’s a rationalization to keep from looking at the difficult truths that lie just below the surface.

In Jan’s case, the statement is:

  1. We are a very family-oriented company.

(Code for: We’re generally passive-aggressive and don’t do conflict well.  We have lots of factions and cliques and silos where we try our workarounds.  The idea of actually airing things in the open is just way too scary for us to try.)

Reality check: No matter what industry you work in, not addressing conflict constructively is a big deal. A study found that the average American worker spends 2.8 hour a week dealing with conflict. (You can do the math on how much money that costs organizations.)

Here are some other examples of “blame the culture” excuses I’ve come across:

2. We’re a numbers driven company.  (Code for:  We are hard charging and profit focused, not people focused. We don’t treat our people well, and they better not expect us to treat them well.)

Reality check:  Is there any organization that is not a numbers driven company?  Hitting the numbers and creating a humane workplace does not have to be mutually exclusive.

3. We’re a compliance driven company.

(Code for:  We micro-manage everything because we’re afraid that someone’s going to screw up and get us into a lot of trouble.)Reality check:  Yes, there a regulated industries (pharma, aerospace, etc.).  But being in a regulated industry doesn’t mean that you need to create a SOP that requires three levels of signature approval for a $10 purchase. (No, I’m not joking.)Regulate the things that matter.  Major on the majors.  For everything else, allow for some initiative and autonomy.

4. We’re a client-facing company.

(Code for:  We expect everyone to be super-responsive and be available and on call 24/7/365.  That means working nights, weekends, and through vacations.)

Reality check:  Doesn’t every company have a client?  If you create a strong relationship with a client, you can set some expectations about when you are or aren’t available.   Usually it isn’t the client who’s afraid of being out of touch-it’s the internal team.

By the way, this gets very funny when working in a global team.  Suddenly, the beliefs and behaviors change drastically from country to country.  For example, the German counterparts of a US professional services firm laughed hysterically at the idea of working through their vacation. They said, That wouldn’t be a vacation…that would be work!

5. We’re a creative company.

(Code for: Lots of people throw around ideas, but we’re really bad at following up and execution.)Reality check: Idea generation is just one part of the creative process.  Equally important is how you go about choosing which ideas to seed, develop, prototype, test and refine.  The goal is innovation, not just a lot of colorful whiteboards.

6. We’re a collaborative company.

(Code for:  Everyone has to be involved with every decision made, and everyone has to be OK with it.  We have committee after committee, and we spend most of the days in meetings and things move forward very slowly.)

Reality check: Collaboration has its time and place. But which decisions need input from all parties, which decisions need just a few, which decisions can be made by one?  It’s great to want to “share the love”, but no one really wants to spend every day in meetings all day long.

What other culture excuses have you heard?  What’s the excuse code for?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.  

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