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Published on November 13, 2017

Bad Culture

”Esko, we need a better culture, one with better human leadership.” A colleague told me this a few years ago. Because I didn’t understand what she meant I engaged in a discussion with her. It turned out that she, neither, understood what she meant. She strongly felt something is “wrong” in our “culture” but couldn’t explain it. A “good culture” is something that is compatible with the values of the person and a "bad culture” is something that is incompatible. But what is it that really makes an organization culture “good” or “bad”?

A business organization exists to operate a successful business. It is therefore not enough to have culture where people are happy. The culture of a business organization must support the realization of the goals of the business, too. But wait a minute! The culture of the mafia organization supports their business very well and is compatible with the values of its members. Yet few of us dare to say that the mafia culture is good. A good organization culture needs to be compatible with the moral code of the society, too.

Goodness of a culture is often confused with its strength. A strong organization culture is consistent and drives people to a compliant behavior and attitudes. In a strong culture, collaboration is usually smooth, productivity is high, and conflicts are resolved effectively. But what happens if the purpose of the business changes? Of if the moral code of the surrounding world changes? Or if people whose personal values don’t match the culture join the organization? In other words, what happens if a good and strong culture becomes bad but strong?

Culture is notoriously hard to change. There exist great organizations whose culture welcomes change. Such capability is based on the very fact that the culture itself is immune to change and therefore provides a safe and solid framework for changing anything but itself.

The schoolbook recipe for a successful change has three pre-requisites: the changes imperative or reason for change, a painful current state, and a desirable future state. Proposing a strong culture with a change imperative is hard because a strong culture rarely recognizes any need for change. For the same reason, it is hard to propose that some future culture would be more desirable than the current one. Therefore, leaders that want to change the culture may make heavy use of pain.

The current culture can be made painful by bringing in many enough people that are incompatible with the culture. A strong culture can easily deny changes in business or even in the moral code but it is harder to refuse people. Bringing in incompatible people makes the organization suffer. The newcomers suffer because they feel like being in a wrong place. The old-timers suffer because the newcomers challenge them. Such suffering will either drive out the newcomers or weaken the culture. Some good people will be lost.

A weak culture is a state of confusion, uncertainty, and poor performance. It is hard to control but welcomes a leader with a vision. When nobody wants to stay, you’re permitted to show the way.