Beware of the workplace culture expert

Would the person who can hand on heart explain everything there is to know about Workplace Culture and can prove that they are correct, please raise their hand.

There seems to be almost as many opinions about workplace culture as there are experts in the field. Whilst there is nothing necessarily wrong with having an opinion (I have plenty), it does become a problem when all-knowing consultants start tampering with things they don't really understand.  History is littered with examples of Culture Transformation projects gone horribly wrong long after the final invoice was issued and paid.

So, what is culture anyway?

Before we speculate further however, let's find out what this thing known as Culture really is. There are numerous definitions which seem to congregate around something like this...

.... the sum total of the behaviors, knowledge and beliefs characteristic of a particular group.

By this definition, it is a moving target rather than a static object.  It is also a broad concept that represents the collective rather than any specific individual within the group.  And it is not an absolute - in other words just because someone is part of a certain culture doesn't mean they share the characteristics or agree with the underlying behaviours.  A person's presence in a group may indicate their preferences, or it may not.

Understanding workplace culture is problematic

Humans are notorious for not always telling the whole truth.  In fact, it is possible to walk away from a conversation with someone and still have no idea what they are really thinking simply because we are not them.  (we may think we understand, but whether we do or not is another story).

Add to this the fact that most culture assessments are in the form of self-completed online surveys which rarely capture context properly - here is so much more to it than can be captured in a single online survey (but it is often a great starting point!).  And given it is a constantly evolving thing, it is simply hard to measure and define.   Two different teams may actually operate very differently within a Company, and sub-cultures can be even more difficult to understand.

Further still is that Culture is often more about the underlying norms of a group which are often not part of the official story, but still definitely part of the Culture.  It is more about the vibe and the unwritten ground rules than a documented set of rules.  These may be the same, but they are probably different.  And no matter what someone says, the cause and effect relationships are difficult to properly comprehend.  There are many leaders who feel they know the culture of a workplace, but have no clue about what is really happening.

So what's the point?

Culture is a complex concept and difficult to fully understand.  Most importantly, it's what lies beneath that really needs to be understood - the unwritten norms.  Like an iceberg, there is always more than what meets the eye.  Beware of people who claim to be able to fix a company's culture with survey-only approaches.  Culture can only be assessed properly through qualitative 'immersion' techniques. Even then, it is difficult to capture the full story, but at least a more complete picture can be formed.

A great way to make sure you don't spend your budget unnecessarily is to simply acknowledge that Culture is an Effect, not a Cause.   In other words, it is the sum total of all things associated with a Company, and it is a moving target, and the influence of those things creates the Culture.  There is no right or wrong, necessarily, because some people's ideal culture is another person's nightmare.

In my humble opinion however, things like consistency and fairness (the rules are the same for everyone) and psychological safety (everyone is able to speak up without recourse) are worthy of serious consideration.

If improving workplace performance is important to you, check out our DIY Workplace Improvement Bundle - which includes videos about Creating A Culture Of Shared Growth, and The Power Of Agreements In The Workplace.


About the author:


Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc). 

Jason Buchanan