Is “Culture” Just a Buzzword?

July 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

“What we really need around here is a _________ culture.”

I’ve heard this dozens of times. You probably have too. In most cases, the blank is filled with “leadership” or “accountability,” but it can be all sorts of other things too: communication, collaborative, engaging, development-oriented, execution, work-life balance-friendly – you name it.

Not many things can top being part of a great team with a great culture. I’ve written about culture several times (here are my two favorites on building a leadership culture and assessing the team culture of the champion Kansas City Royals baseball team). Unfortunately, many times I hear leaders lamenting the problems they experience and simply uttering the sentence above – as if the simple prescription will foresee the remedy.

In graduate school, my leadership textbooks (yes, we read those – a couple were really interesting!) contrasted different theories of organizational culture. Do leaders create culture or does culture exist independently? As a leadership development practitioner, I can tell you it’s undoubtedly the former. A poor culture is a sure sign of deficient leadership. But simply identifying the need for a better culture doesn’t create any change.

Harvard Business Review published an article recently titled “Culture is Not the Culprit.” In it, they describe how culture isn’t a cause, it’s an effect. Leaders don’t “fix culture,” they fix problems and then receive an improved culture as a benefit. This is easy to intuit, but more difficult to accept because of the leadership implications. If the culture stinks, it’s time to get to work. Leaders have many responsibilities in this regard.

Understand the Nature of the Problem

It’s impossible to adequately address what we don’t understand – whether it’s a broken down vehicle, sick body or low-performing team. But it’s amazing how many business professionals put hasty (and costly) plans into place without doing a proper assessment. I’ve come to understand it’s mostly because everyone is so busy with their regular job – they don’t have time for extra projects. Then results stay stagnant. So talk to the people closest to the problems. Get wide input. Address actual, rather than perceived, issues.

Pull the Right “Lever”

Bobb Biehl likes to say, “When the facts become clear, the decisions jump out at you.” That’s immensely different than throwing out solutions like spaghetti on the wall and seeing which ones stick. Specific interventions require less time, effort and dollars in the long-run (and often short-run too). Instead of telling people to be more collaborative, have team leaders schedule regular meetings to address key items together over the course of a change initiative. Focus on precise rather than broad action.

Monitor and Readjust

In my first couple years playing high school football, our coaching staff promised us we’d be the best conditioned football team on any field. And they kept their promise. We were good but not great. Then my senior year, they said being conditioned wasn’t enough – we needed to focus more on scheme. So they changed the practice regimens. Conditioning was still important, but we cut some to make time for extra drills. That was the year we had the strongest team and won our conference.

Some elements of culture should be preserved, but even positive aspects will need to change over time. Leaders need to be willing to proactively make adjustments.

Anticipate Future Impacts

Any time “management” enacts a change, culture “tweaks.” That’s the nature of cause and effect. Unintended consequences can be devastating. Results suffer and top talent leaves (among other things). Don’t be the leader who, in attempting to fix one problem, creates several more. Anticipate the broader impact.

The next time you speak the word “culture,” take a pause. Is there a specific action you can take that will help generate the results you want? If so, you’ve found your opportunity to create the culture you desire.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.