Chapter 3: What Corporate Culture Is Not

Jon Hellevig

Chapter 3: What Corporate Culture Is Not

13.08.2014 0 Comments



When organizational psychologists (and people influenced by their vein of thinking) talk about corporate culture, they usually treat it from the point of view of “soft issues” – psychological, anthropological and other such complex and profound concepts of academic philosophy. They say, for example, that “organizational culture is a set of shared mental assumptions”1. Or, they view corporate culture “through things such as stories, rituals, and symbols”, or “through a network of shared meanings,” “traditions” etc2.

By criticizing the “soft-side” approach to corporate culture taken by traditional organizational psychologists, I want to demystify what corporate culture is about and stress that the main role here is with business leaders who have to concentrate their time and resources on working in a complex manner with all issues of the business so as to affect the corporate culture, which is nothing but a reflection of their implemented decisions. This is not to deny that the professional organizational psychologist would have a role to play in it.

An influential theory that has contributed much to the misconceptions about corporate culture is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory3. Hofstede derived his theory from the realization that the national and regional cultures inform behavior. Can’t argue with that, can we? Obviously there are these and many other things that the behavior of a person is influenced by. But the problem here is to try to build this insight into a theory of management the way Hofstede did it. He posited that the influences that affect an organizational culture can be divided into five dimensions of culture as follows:

Power distance – According to this concept there are various degrees to which a society expects there to be differences in the levels of power between bosses and subordinates. Some societies are considered to be more prone to expect some individuals to wield greater powers in an organization than others. That is, in some societies the expectation is that there should be more social inequality within the organization. Uncertainty avoidance. – This concept aims to measure how different cultures cope with uncertainty about the future. And there is said to be either a rational or non-rational approach to coping with that by means of technology, law and rituals. According to Hofstederituals that aim at coping with the non-rational aspects of uncertainty include: memos and reports, some parts of the accounting system, a large part of the planning and control systems, and the nomination of experts4.

-Individualism vs. collectivism. – This dimension is said to measure the disharmony between personal and collective interests.

Masculinity vs. femininity – With this concept Hofstede divides society into either predominantly male or female dimensions in terms of cultural values, gender roles and power relations. – No comments.

-Long-term vs. short-term orientation. –The long-term orientation dimension, we are told, has to do with society’s search for virtue, whereas societies with a short-term orientation “generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute Truth.”5 I quote further: “They are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results. In societies with a long-term orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on situation, context and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results.”

The problem here is not whether Professor Hofstede’s theories are wrong or not; that is any case a question we cannot resolve because it is a question for aesthetics. We cannot argue on matters of taste with those who like that kind of prose. Rather the problem here is that these ideas are largely useless, if not nonsensical, in a context of corporate culture. I would place what was said about “masculinity vs. femininity” and “long-term vs. short- term orientation” squarely in the category of the nonsensical. When it comes to his conception of “uncertainty avoidance,” I don’t think it is a relevant point in the context of a corporate culture, inasmuch as in a corporation uncertainty avoidance is more a question about the prescribed practices to deal with these issues, practices that are prescribed by management decisions. I may note that, now that most countries in the world have moved to a market economy, we cannot see any major differences in respect to how people in different countries deal with these issues, which we can glean already from their respective macroeconomic, monetary, and fiscal planning, which are all questions about future certainty/uncertainty.

In fact it seems that Hofstede’s concept of uncertainty avoidance is entirely based on cultural bias and his inability to discern the influence of the market economy. This becomes completely clear when we take a closer look at how he treats this concept. In essence uncertainty avoidance, according to Hofstede, is about a culture’s preferences for strict rules and regulations over ambiguity and risk.

We need to keep in mind that his research was originally based on studies made prior to the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a capitalist market economy. So here really is a very simple influence which Hofstede did not recognize: with the change of the political model of government and introduction of the market economy, such business practices that are conducive to dealing with uncertainty have emerged, so to say automatically as a result of the transition itself. After all, business in a market economy is fundamentally only about risk (risk in relation to anticipated but uncertain rewards). Hence uncertainty avoidance is not any kind of a deep-rooted culturally based influence but rather a function of market economy vs. planned economy, which latter by definition prohibits the practice of speculating on the future.

According to Hofstede, the countries which were prone to avoid uncertainty displayed common traits, such as having a long history and a monolithic, homogenous culture. This while the countries with greater appetite for risk (that is, preference for ambiguity and risk), in Hofstede’s understanding, are those with a young history like the USA, which are ethnically and culturally diverse due to immigration from various parts of the world, and are innovative and inquisitive. But when we recognize the role of the market economy we see that these are circular definitions: market economies attract immigrants and innovation follows from a market economy.

Hofstede actually ranked countries by this parameter. In the ranking the so-called “Protestant” countries of the West scored well in terms of risk appetite (he has inherited that prejudice from Weber) and also, surprisingly for this kind of study, China and countries with Chinese influence scored also well, but this comes after updating the data to reflect China’s recent success. The risk-averse cultures were, for example, Russia and the countries influenced by the former Soviet Union, and Catholic, Buddhist and Arabic- speaking countries. – Hofstede ranks Russia as risk-averse only because he has not realized what is going on in the country after introduction of a market economy. Anybody who works here will realize that the Russians on every level of society are extremely prone to take risks. When it comes to Buddhist and Arabic countries, clearly they don’t have such a developed level of competitive market economy. The same goes for the countries which he refers to as having strong Catholic influences.

I can still somehow understand that an academic scholar wants to put forward such concepts and claim that such dimensions would somehow be of relevance in respect to how various cultures function. But I cannot comprehend how he is actually able to assign exact measures to any country in the world for these artful concepts. (In the 2010 edition of his “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, Hofstede gives measurement scores for 76 countries.) Clearly Hofstede is here elevating himself into the role of some kind of a god that possesses such unique insights into people’s minds. It is as if Hofstede were drawing from a giant crystal ball to come up with his ratings. Then by smoke and mirrors disguised as academic science, or rather like the interpretation of horoscopes, he reports the results of his clairvoyance regarding each of his victim countries.

Clearly these kinds of things don’t lend themselves to measurement, all the more not for people of entire countries.

Hofstede’s approach yields a concoction of contradictions, confusions, fiction, and falsehoods. Let’s look at some of them. But first I need to point out that the Professor Hofstede is fundamentally mistaken even in the basic assumptions of the theory of uncertainty avoidance. In his theory a low score on uncertainty avoidance signifies that the country can live with an uncertain future. Such countries, like the United States, are, according to Hofstede, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here, he says, “is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?” That is, countries like the USA are said to tolerate uncertainty and just let it happen. But clearly that is wrong. Instead, in the USA, the country with the longest history of a true market economy (longest history and not shortest as Hofstede wrongly presupposes), they first developed elaborate practices to contain uncertainty and to avoid future uncertainty to the best of their abilities. This is done in the form of all kinds of risk management tools, analysis, financial planning, insurance, hedging, you name it. Again we see that Hofstede is altogether wrong in his basic assumptions. It is precisely the countries that he said have high tolerance for uncertainty that are the ones that are most systematically doing their best to avoid it. And on the contrary, those countries that Hofstede condemned as uncertainty avoiders have a far more relaxed approach to it, such as Russia. Albeit the reason is not programmed in people’s minds, as we are told, but in the business practices elicited by a market economy.

Hofstede also confuses uncertainty avoidance with the normative culture of the country, that is, the supposed preference for “rigid codes of belief and behaviour.” Countries like the USA with Hofstede’s high tolerance for uncertainty supposedly maintain a more relaxed attitude to rules. However, anybody who has passed through immigration control at a US airport may judge the USA by this criterion. In every aspect of normative behavior (adherence to rules), the USA is an extremely rigid country characterized by the notorious “zero tolerance” policy for deviance. Increasingly the USA is overwhelmed by rules in every aspect of life. The same goes for Hofstede’s other misplaced uncertainty lovers, such as Sweden and the UK.

Bogged down by these confused concepts, Hofstede identifies Greece, of all countries in the world, as the most risk-averse! This after the country’s leaders, and their electorate, have for decades not given a damn about prudence and hedging their risks and overwhelmed the country with debts until it went bust. Clearly Greeks, by these criteria, love uncertainty!

The study is full of peculiarities. Perhaps out of “neighborly love,” Hofstede, coming from the Netherlands, accords Belgium one of the worst scores as uncertainty avoiders. This while his native Netherlands scores in the medium range. Considering that half the people of Belgium, the Flemish, are in essence (at least in a global comparison) culturally and linguistically the same as his native Dutch, this conclusion must be considered extremely startling. But Hofstede has an explanation for this (drawn, no doubt, from his crystal ball): “Their history of frequently being ruled by others,” we are told, explains this score both in regards to the French speaking Belgians, the Walloons, and the Flemish. This theory is full of such equally simplistic and naïve explanations. And when you consider the world history you will find that the argument rings quite hollow. Which are the people that have not been ruled by “others,” and which are these “others”? Oddly enough, here again Belgians are said to “favor planning” and “welcome some level of expertise” in connection with undertaking change. Which certainly is the American practice as well. In this the Hofstede method has also identified the root of the constitutional problems of today’s Belgium. Belgium has a constitutional crisis due to its people’s weird habit of wanting to avoid uncertainty by planning and expertise, says Hofstede. Because of the peculiar Belgian penchant for planning and desire for expertise, we are told, it is now so painful to discuss a new constitution. Never mind the issues we would think primarily relate to the question of a possible new constitution: linguistic and cultural division, the relative economic prosperity and taxation, and the usual political left and right division.

Russians are among the most stubborn avoiders of uncertainty in Hofstede’s mind. They are supposedly “very much threatened by ambiguous situations.” This claim is made although the country has in the recent two decades totally changed in every aspect of life: it has abandoned communism and the planned command economy and embraced a market economy, introduced a convertible currency and practically free flows of capital, private property, opened the borders for free travel to and from the country, and introduced from all over the world food and eating habits for which they did not even have words before (Japanese sushi, Italian pizza, and hamburgers from McDonald’s have now become staple food for Russians) and so on.

Further we are told that, in a desperate effort to avoid uncertainty, Russians have also “established one of the most complex bureaucracies in the world.” However, it is not Russians that have established this bureaucracy, but the former communist rulers. Because a communist system is a planned system in every aspect of life, then bureaucracy is by definition a natural consequence of that. It will take time to normalize things. But the good professor could also have looked a little bit further (after all he is an anthropologist) at how people actually respect these rules. It is a no-brainer for anybody that has some experience of Russia to see that Russians are probably world record holders in ignoring these rules. In fact, the whole country was in a state of virtual anarchy during the 1990s.

This does not harmonize with Prof. Hofstede’s theory on uncertainty avoiders. After all it was said that it is in the uncertainty-loving countries, like Sweden and the USA, where people “believe there should be no more rules than are necessary and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed.” Russians do this all the time.

Typically for this kind of theory we find this curious statement describing Russian’s uncertainty avoidance: “Presentations are either not prepared, e.g. when negotiations are being started and the focus is on the relationship building, or extremely detailed and well prepared. Also detailed planning and briefing is very common” (underlining mine). – It turns out that both planning well in detail and not planning at all are sins of uncertainty avoiders (sic).

Finally we are left with the categories “power distance” and “individualism vs. collectivism.” There is a valid point here, but the problem is that it would be very difficult to identify in any particular case how these things stand in reality. Another point regarding these last two concepts, and all the other ones, is that this approach of trying to so identify the influences has very little practical value. For whatever the case we need to reduce the power distance in all organizations, and any successful efforts in this direction will carry a positive influence. In cultures with a traditionally more rigid social hierarchy it might be more difficult to reach the ideal level, but it is the relative level of reduction that counts in a transformation program. In respect to “individualism and collectivism,” I, however, have to point out that the question might be altogether wrong to start with. I do not consider that this distinction is relevant; rather each organization has to encourage “collectivism” in the sense of teamwork, whereas successful teamwork requires people who are self- disciplined and self-motivated, which are traits of “individualism.” I don’t believe that people from any cultures with a market economy would be “collectivists” in the sense of blindly taking, and waiting to take, their cues from a leader. (Or whatever they might mean by this.) Some organizational consultants count Russians among the collectivists, which certainly is wrong, as I already pointed out. Collectivism vs. individualism should also not be confused with hierarchy and submission to hierarchical management. As in the Russian case, highly individualistic people submit themselves to hierarchical rule by their bosses. But precisely because of the individualism, this might be merely an apparent submission. That is, the subordinate may well show the signs of submission and obedience, but in reality he might not be aligned at all and might well, as so often is the case, go on and act as he sees fit.


According to Edgar Schein6 culture is “the most difficult organizational attribute”7; that is, in his thinking it is one of many “attributes.” I would like to point out that in my conception, culture is not an attribute but a reflection of all that is the case, of all aspects of behavior in an organization, including management decisions.

Schein’s organizational model illuminates culture from the standpoint of the observer, described by three cognitive levels of organizational culture. The first level of such attributes consists of “artifacts,” which include facilities, offices, furnishings, visible awards and recognition, the way that its members dress, how each person visibly interacts with others and with organizational outsiders, and even company slogans, mission statements and other operational creeds8.

In this conception, “myths, stories, and sagas” influence how people understand what their organization values and believes and they are “represented in rituals and ceremonies.” – If so, it is strange that in my career of 30 years with various organizations, I have not yet ever come across any such myths, stories, and sagas. Well, of course you hear an occasional story from the history of the company every now and then, but certainly not at any such level that it would shape the corporate cultures, much less qualify as the corporate culture. These ideas come, again, from the anthropological traditions of these scholars who have been raised on academic literature on studies of the native people of primitive societies in the 19th and early 20th century.

According to Schein there is a second level of professed organizational culture consisting of supposedly “shared values.” These presumably are the preferences of individuals regarding such things as loyalty and customer service9. I think it is misleading to refer to such aspects of organizational behavior as “shared values,” which concept in fact points to some much more fundamental sentiments. I would tone done the discussion in this respect. For instance, when it comes to customer service, instead of “values” we should speak of “policies” and “business practices” By doing so we highlight that this is a question of management decisions and implementation of the decisions in regard to what kind of behavior is required and what kind of people you employ for those purposes.

At the third, and deepest, level, Schein invokes the anthropological concept of “taboo” – how could we do without it in this kind of academic science! This is in connection with the discussion of “the organization’s tacit assumptions.” This is about “unspoken rules” that “exist without the conscious knowledge of the membership” and “it is a taboo to discuss these issues”. The academic artists in this genre tell us that “culture at this level is the underlying and driving element of the organization”10

In problematic organizational cultures these kinds of elements are of course involved. But my point is again that one does not need to worry too much about that, because such aspects of behavior cannot be separately affected anyway. I mean that there is nothing else you can do about the “taboos” and all that gossip than to implement a healthy culture of engagement. That is, you put in leadership efforts to change the corporate culture according to the healthy principles presented in this book. And then, presto, the taboos will disappear like a bad dream when you wake up. The leadership does not need to emulate an exorcist expelling the evil spirit of the taboos by waving around his value statements and guiding principles, or hang them up in the corporate canteen and locker rooms like garlic to keep the vampires out.

Another example of this anthropologizing vein of organizational theory is provided by Gazi and Zyphur’s ideas about how different types of ritual communication contribute to creating an organizational culture11.

The ritual communication according to this idea, involves12:

• Metaphors such as comparing an organization to a machine or a family reveal employees’ shared meanings of experiences at the organization;
• Stories can provide examples for employees of how to or not to act in certain situations;
• Rites and ceremonies combine stories, metaphors, and symbols into one. Several different kinds of rites that affect organizational culture:
o Rites of passage: employees move into new roles
o Rites of degradation: employees have power taken away from them
o Rites of enhancement: public recognition for an employee’s accomplishments
o Rites of renewal: improve existing social structures
o Rites of conflict reduction: resolve arguments between certain members or groups
o Rites of integration: reawaken feelings of membership in the organization
• Reflexive comments are explanations, justifications, and criticisms of our own actions. This includes:
o Plans: comments about anticipated actions
o Commentaries: comments about action in the present
o Accounts: comments about an action or event that has already occurred
• Fantasy Themes are common creative interpretations of events that reflect beliefs, values, and goals of the organization. They lead to rhetorical visions, or views of the organization and its environment held by organization members.

Let me point out that I consider it outright nonsensical to study organizational culture from this point of view.


When I first heard about Deal and Kennedy’s13 definition of corporate culture, it sounded promising: culture is the way things get done around here. This sounded close to my conception that culture is the reflection of the behavior of all the people in the organization. But I then found out that this is not what Deal and Kennedy had in mind. Rather for them it reflects a value judgment of “how things are done around here” in the sense “this is the way we do it here, live with it!” They identified four different types of organizations. (Academic science is all about inventing concepts and claiming that a certain number of such concepts are valid to any given case, as if the concepts represented a tangible reality).

To give you a brief taste, these are the four possible cultures according to Deal and Kennedy:

– “Work-hard, play-hard culture”
– “Tough-guy macho culture”
– “Process culture”
– “Bet-the-company culture”

My final example of the misconceived theories of corporate culture is the theories of Robert Cooke14. He has invented an “Organizational Culture Inventory” which purports to measure twelve behavioral norms that are grouped into three general types of cultures15.

– Constructive cultures, in which members are encouraged to interact with people and approach tasks in ways that help them meet their higher-order satisfaction needs.
– Passive/defensive cultures, in which members believe they must interact with people in ways that will not threaten their own security.
– Aggressive/defensive cultures, in which members are expected to approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security.

Members are supposedly required to fit in these concepts in order to meet the expectations within the organization. According to this theory the employee’s perception of the culture – any of the three choices listed above – forms the culture of the organization. I don’t believe it, but even if it were so, then so what? What would that change in terms of how leaders have to guide their corporate cultures?

To my mind the involvement of those kinds of concepts in the discussion of corporate culture is largely misguided or irrelevant. They push people to mystify corporate culture and to think that it is about high-flying psychological stuff that doesn’t have much to do with actual business. I don’t deny that a corporate culture cannot be studied in those terms for the purpose of those branches of academic science but I deny the relevance of such studies to business management. The only bridge point with reality from these kinds of studies is represented by the issues that go under the heading “rituals,” if we by this mean the various kinds of corporate get-togethers, official or unofficial. It is a part of management of the corporate culture to determine what kind of social events and ceremonies (internal and external) the company sponsors and approves of. This category involves all kinds of specially designed team building events and other happenings of that kind. This indeed requires conscious management and the choices are highly dependent on the kind of corporate culture that any given leader strives for. There is no one correct answer to which kinds of social events are recommendable and which not, how many to organize, and so on, because it all depends on what kind of a corporate culture one strives to implement. But it is certain that the decisions on organizing such events must be managed so as to fit with the general strategy of the firm. There is, for example, no point in holding a “team-building: event if the executives do not first determine how the given type of event would fit with the strategic ideas on the intended corporate culture.

In Russian culture, celebrations are very important and a lot of care and attention goes into them. At work these are reflected in the ubiquitous birthday celebrations, as well as family occasions, such as the birth of a child and personal achievements. Often this means that the women (yes, usually the women) gather in the office kitchen to slice up an assortment of cold cuts and peel and cut fruits, bread and cheese. All is displayed on the table in the lunch room or negotiation room. All employees in reach are invited to join. Most companies allow them to toast the occasion with champagne, wine or vodka. Senior management is expected to address the hero of the day and to raise toasts to her success and health. But even if it is important, and perhaps nice in a way, I don’t think that the meaning of these celebrations should be raised to mythological levels. In a healthy corporate culture, people will find the right balance of how much to make of such events, and there will be no compulsion in this regard. Whoever wants to treat his fellow staff members may do so; whoever wants to attend will do so; and whoever doesn’t will feel free to refrain.

The problem with the theories I criticized above is that they assume that corporate culture is some kind of a stand-alone product of those psycho-anthropological ideas where corporate culture is relegated to the role of “also important.” It is as if they were thinking that corporate culture is some kind of invisible entity. I remind you that I take a totally opposite view of corporate culture: Corporate culture is the aggregate reflection of all actions of a company, decisions and behavior of its management and all of its employees, as well as all the business practices and business processes. The beloved “traditions” and “rituals” of the academic scholars are also the result of historical management decisions about how to conduct business. Some of these decisions can be traced to existing rules, but for many of the traditions there is not necessarily an evident source, or it might be a result of a corruption of a rule that has served a totally different function in the past. Main point: strong leaders can change and shape the corporate culture. They do it by making decisions and implementing them. The corporate culture is the behavior which ensues from such decisions regarding all aspects of business, for example, strategy, communication and reporting practices, organizational structure, decision making and planning processes, pay and rewards, tolerance for flaunting social hierarchical status, empowerment, risk taking, discipline, training and development, safety, and other things.

When I started my job carrier in mid 1980s in Finland, the status symbols of social job hierarchy had just stated to be questioned. At that time there were still: executive elevators, executive dining rooms, executive country clubs. But now these are largely gone.

It is evident from Kotter that even a leading authority on leadership and change with strong business credentials may be led astray by the hullabaloo conceptions on corporate culture put forward by the psycho-anthropological school of academic scholars so as to think that corporate culture is something other than a reflection of all the actions and behavior of all people in the organization. In his Leading Change Kotter16 defines corporate culture in terms of “norms of behavior and shared values of a group.” Further, norms of behavior, according to Kotter, are “common or pervasive ways of acting that are found in a group and that persist because group members tend to behave in ways that teach these practices to new members.” Shared values in turn are “important concerns and goals shared by most people in a group that tend to shape group behavior.” But by these norms of behavior he means the unofficial norms. And when it comes to “shared values,” I already expressed above my contention that it is a grossly overvalued category in respect to a discussion of what corporate culture is. Kotter refers to the above concepts as “social forces,” which he equates with corporate culture. That is, according to Kotter corporate culture is a specific pocket in the company which manifests itself in the form of elusive “social forces.”

Further Kotter posits corporate culture as “a powerful influence” on behavior. But as I have been pointing out, corporate culture cannot be considered an influence on organizational behavior. Rather, it is the behavior, or on a more abstract level a manifestation, or reflection, of the behavior. It goes without saying that past behavior influences present and future behavior, so we can in this sense take corporate culture (in Kotter’s sense) to mean that “past behavior influences present behavior,” which is the same as saying that past corporate culture influences present corporate culture. Nobody wants to argue with that. But here the point is that at each stage we mean behavior, human behavior. It is the behavior of people that is the influence; at least, that is what Kotter means. And I largely agree in that sense, although one should point out that material manifestations of past behavior, such as the buildings, office design and corporate uniforms, also influence behavior to a certain degree. (The latter are quite easy to change when you embark on a journey to change the corporate culture.)

We have established that past behavior exercises (in people’s memory, conscious and subconscious) a strong influence on future behavior. But having also established that “culture” is the behavior, we cannot therefore say, as Kotter does: “Culture is important because it can powerfully influence human behavior…” Because if we put it like that, then one will think that culture and behavior are separate things.

Before looking at how Kotter develops this theme, I need to mention another of his background assumptions. This is the misconception about the “shared values” which we encountered already above. He proceeds to illustrate his idea of the influences of corporate culture by hypothesizing about the ordeals of a new young hire, a college graduate, who goes up the career ladder in a corporation and bumps into the supposed reality determined by these “shared values”17. After the job interview he is unwittingly hired because of cultural bias and not because of his skills and competence. His initiation into the harsh norms and values of the corporate culture, which haunt the firm like a ghost, then gets under way. The corporate culture manifests itself first in the form of the boss going up in smoke over some incident, then later when a startling comment at a meeting is met with stony silence, and further reveals itself when an older secretary rudely read him the riot act. Bit by bit, the phantom culture eats through the skin of the poor fellow, so that after eight promotions by the age of fifty, he has become totally possessed by the demon of the corporate culture. I am ironizing here, but my point is that we should not think of corporate culture in these terms, at least not to any significant degree. More than that, I think Kotter gives too much emphasis to these merely superficial manifestations of human interactions. Hearing one or another thing about organizational behavior from coworkers should not be mistaken for manifestations of a company’s “stories” and “rites.” People will always be different and have their own ideas and own peculiarities, but there is no point trying to add up all that to amount to a manifestation of the “essence of the culture.” In regard to the scolding secretary, I think that in a true culture of engagement you would not keep those kinds of people aboard. I would think that this story rather shows, if anything, a situation where there are no “shared values” at all.

The point is that such problems go away once the proper corporate culture is in place. Therefore we should not overly stress these aspects of normal human behavior which really are manifestations of the greater culture of the surrounding society. It is only when a particular kind of behavior is manifest in persistent and consistent practices throughout the organization that one may assign them a more important role in the assessment of the corporate culture. You cannot change the greater culture of your surrounding life but, as I pointed out just a while ago: you can change corporate culture because you as a leader can establish what kind of behaviors are acceptable in your organization.

Informed by such misconceptions, Kotter reaches the startling conclusion that in a corporate change process, leaders should not attempt to change culture first but should leave it for the last stage. Such an idea can come only from the conception that culture is a standalone entity in the vein of the misconceived ideas I have referenced above. But I remind you that in reality corporate culture is the aggregate reflection of all actions of a company, decisions and behavior of its management and all of its employees, as well as all its business practices and business processes. There is no “corporate culture” that could be conceived of separately from all the resulting behavior of the people in the firm. Corporate culture is then the result of the behavior. Therefore you have to change precisely the behavior in order to change the culture; in fact, the perceived cultural change is the consequence of the new behavioral norms that you put in place in the form of business decisions in relation to all aspects of the business. I am therefore perplexed to read Kotter saying: “Culture changes only after you have successfully altered people’s actions, after the new behavior produces some group benefit for a period of time, and after people see the connection between the new actions and the performance improvement…” – What then is this elusive concept “culture” for Kotter? The phantom I evoked above?


Once in a while I come across authors who claim that one cannot validly say that there are good or bad corporate cultures. “There are only different kinds of corporate cultures,” they insist18,19. Here they go again, the anthropologists with their misconceived cultural relativism. The ideas condemning the moral judgment of cultures is fundamentally a good idea developed to protect our thinking from mental colonialism so as not to project our Western cultural values automatically onto other countries. And, in my understanding, the original idea was in fact meant to protect the integrity of the individual by considering his actions in the background of the culture in which he lives and has been raised in. And in this sense it is a very true idea. I am confident that all humans are genetically identical in their cognitive and emotional abilities. But the very problem is that the culture and language they are exposed determine their values and behavior. And certainly there are huge differences in cultures in this respect; there are benign and malicious, and even evil cultures. Think of cultures of cannibalism or the ancient Aztec culture with their ritual murders of people in the name of religion, human sacrifice and redemption. Certainly our cultures are better. Or how about subcultures like the Mafia, or street gangs in the Favelas of Rio? Are they equally as good as the culture of the orderly Swiss? Or do you suppose that the social culture of Soviet Union was equally as good as that of today’s Russia?

James Fairfield-Sonn recounts an amusing story on how the Wall Street Journal raised the question of whether the cultures of Price Waterhouse and Coopers Lybrand would be compatible in the wake of their announced merger in 199820. According to the WSJ the differences were great. The penetratingly insightful investigating journalist had established that the people at Price Waterhouse wore starched underwear while the folks at Coopers Lybrand didn’t like to wear underwear at all. Unfortunately Fairfield-Sonn softens this funny anecdote on differences in corporate cultures by stating that he does not mean to say that he thinks that one culture is better than another one: “cultures are just different,” he assures us. Certainly one is better than the other. For a starter, starched underwear may cause all kinds of unpleasant ailments. But taking the figurative point, starched underwear, is meant to connote a very conservative organization, and it must mean hierarchy and bureaucracy, whereas the characterization of Coopers Lybrand connoted an image of a dynamic sales-oriented organization. In my mind the second is clearly better. And most probably the resulting merger was better and more comfortable for everybody, including in their pants.

Another point is that it is difficult to give an objective rating as to which culture would be better than another, as we as observers are anyway tinged by our culturally informed judgments – by the received prejudice from our own cultures. If we speak about the broader social cultures, I may state with confidence that there certainly are objective values that let us distinguish good from bad. A bad culture is one that does not respect the life of an individual and suppresses individual freedoms, which in its extreme form is manifested in ritual killings of human beings in the name of a perverted justice which is known as “capital punishment.” But a culture is also bad if it is not prepared to protect the life of individuals with force if needed. In my mind bad cultures are such where life is very much regulated by rigid religious precepts or other extreme ideologies, whereby people are forced to conduct their lives in accordance with other peoples’ narrow-minded and radical religious and ideological ideas. And certainly we can detect that some cultures are more conducive to entrepreneurship and a quest for prosperity and innovation than others. There are differences in the importance they place on rule of law, equity, democracy, safety, creativity, arts, sports, their own sense of cultural pride and superiority, their hubris, etc. And all this affects the judgment of the culture. But when we leave out the extremes we are hard pressed to rank countries in respect to their cultures, in most cases we can only analyze separate aspects of the culture and rank them by those, keeping in mind that many have their good and bad sides.

What is true for cultures of countries or societies is true for organizational or corporate cultures as well. The difference is that in the case of organizational and corporate cultures, it is just so much easier to judge what is good and what is bad. I am confident that we can do it by applying the principles of engagement and a healthy corporate culture as presented in this essay.

The question of whether there are good or bad cultures (which there clearly are) is different from the question of whether you could impose one uniform ideal that works in all cases. A corporate culture can be molded to suit the specific strategic objectives of any given company. All the drivers of corporate culture which were presented above can be adjusted to reach the specific kind of corporate culture that a leader wants to attain. A corporate culture can and should be fine-tuned to elicit the kind of strategic behaviors that the leadership recognizes as relevant for the given business. A business that strives to be highly innovative certainly needs to bring out different kinds of behaviors than a business that emphasizes quality, or one that emphasizes tradition. And some types of businesses require more formal discipline than others. Whatever the case, all the considerations presented in the discussion of the drivers remain relevant for all kinds of businesses; it is just a question of degree: how much certain kinds of behavior are encouraged relative to other kinds. It is only in this respect that we need to recognize that we cannot rank different kinds of corporate cultures in terms of good and bad. But in fact we are here dealing only with various aspects of the general standard of a good culture. And when Michael Porter says “There is no such thing as a good or bad culture per se”21 I think it is precisely this that he has in mind. The fact that this is the insight that can be gleaned from him is clear from these words: “Culture can powerfully reinforce the competitive advantage a generic strategy seeks to achieve, if the culture is an appropriate one.”

1 Ravasi, Davide & Schultz, Maiken (2006). Responding to organizational identity threats: Exploring the role of organizational culture. Academy of Management Journal, 49(3), 433-458
3 Hofstede, Geert H. 2001. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications. Some of the ideas I here attribute to Hofstede are derived from the
6 Schein, Edgar (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
11 Islam, Gazi and Zyphur, Michael. (2009). Rituals in organizatinios: A review and expansion of current theory. Group Organization Management.
13 Terrence E. Deal, Allan A. Kennedy, Corporate Cultures, Perseus, 2000
14 Cooke, R. A. (1987). The Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics
16 Kottler, John: Leading Change. 1996. Harvard University Press
17 Kottler, John : Leading Change. 1996. Harvard University Press
18 Tiri, Mirja: Differences in Corporate Culture are reflected in Human Resources Management in Russia (Finnish) in Henkilöstöhallinnon käsikirja 2012, Finnish-Russian Chamber of Commerce
19 Fairfield-Sonn, James W.: Corporate Culture and the Quality Organization. Quorum Books. 2001
20 Fairfield-Sonn, James W.: Corporate Culture and the Quality Organization. Quorum Books. 2001
21 Porter, Michael, page. 24, Competitive Advantag.2004. Free Press


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