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Say what you do – or do what you say?

The question of company culture always intrigues me. Companies spend considerable amounts of time effort and money trying to articulate, shape and change their corporate cultures but often miss the most basic points.

Company culture tends to be articulated in one of two ways:

Number one involves setting an aspirational culture – This is often triggered by a change or issue. This could be new leadership, a merger or acquisition or possibly a reaction to a scandal or wrongdoing. In this case a small set of stakeholders will articulate an aspirational culture and then either attempt to change or hope that culture manifests itself over time.

The second approach involves a business trying to capture the essence of the culture as is. This is often done to try to articulate, reinforce and evolve the existing culture. This may occur through a consultation process of stakeholders across the business, whereby individuals articulate and evidence elements which form the culture.

Many organisations will combine elements of these two approaches in their quest to define and articulate their culture, but with most there is an element of filtering whereby the process becomes sanitised. We hear about many businesses with toxic cultures and many of us will have worked in them, yet I have not seen examples of companies who articulate these realities. Would a company ever state that “our leadership is remote and detached but that means you can get away with doing half a job”. Whilst companies might not be as bad as in this example, many companies remove any possible downsides to their culture from this culture statements. In this case it is like the emperor’s new clothes whereby everyone knows what is written is fictitious but maybe a few people believe in what is written on the wall.

In my view congruence is the key to articulating, understanding and evolving your culture. Senior leaders can become detached from the culture of their organisation and what they are told, believe or articulate may not be the reality. Sometimes just opening your eyes or looking for evidence can help show the reality. In other words:

“is there a congruence between what people do and your culture”

Below are some real yet anonymised examples I have come across in my career

Example one

Articulated vision: we act with pace and agility

Experienced reality: every decision is made by formal committee and leaders across the business expect to shape decisions outside their remit

Example two

Articulated vision: we are inclusive and welcome creativity

Experienced reality: long tenure of many team members, new hires were allocated experienced mentors who would help them understand the culture. Most new hires leave within 12 months as the mentors were change resistant and guarded the status quo.

Example three

Articulated vision: driven to be exceptional

Experienced reality: high sickness rates, employees start putting their coats on at ten to five and the car park is virtually empty by ten past. The company is lagging behind the competition and failing to innovate.

Your people are not stupid, if you are going to articulate your vision make it real and empower everyone to challenge anything which is not congruent with what is written on the wall!

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