Culture Matters

By Jim Whitt

I just read an article by Bill Barnett in the Harvard Business Review entitled When Choosing a Job, Culture Matters. That is an understatement. Let me share an example.

I know of an employee who went to work for a company and was so excited he couldn’t wait to get started. This exceptionally talented and qualified candidate was hired for a newly created position and he was determined to show what a difference he, and the new position, could make.

The problem was that he discovered he was the only one who cared about making a difference. His most innovative ideas were shot down by his boss. He found himself surrounded by coworkers who when at their best were unengaged and when at their worst were actively disengaged, undermining and sometimes hostile. In a matter of months this excited new hire lost his enthusiasm. He stopped contributing ideas and kept quiet during staff meetings. Eventually he became convinced any effort to positively influence the culture wouldn’t do any good. Here’s what’s really sad — his coworkers who negatively influenced the culture dominated the culture.

I can give you examples of people who work for companies that once had great cultures that have deteriorated. The result is the same as I used in my example of the new hire. Eventually people give up on trying to make a difference and they learn to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. The culture continues to deteriorate. Productivity and morale drops, turnover increases. The best people leave and the worst people stay to make an already dysfunctional culture even worse.

I can take anything that is critical to building a successful organization and end the sentence with culture matters. The culture is the responsibility of the leadership. If you are a leader in an organization that looks like what I have just described take a long, hard look in the mirror because the culture is a reflection of you. Now, ask yourself a question. What am I going to do about it?

If your answer is “nothing” you should be fired because you’re not a leader — and you never will be. The correct answer is, “I’m going to change the culture.” If that’s your answer get ready to cowboy up because you’re in for a ride.

Culture change takes place when leaders commit to an organizational development process. People become acclimated to a culture, whether it’s good or bad. Those who have dominated a bad culture are not anxious to have their playhouse renovated. They’re like cockroaches that head for the woodwork when you turn on the light. I’ve experienced it firsthand in my work as a consultant.

On the other hand, a positive change in culture brings out the best in an organization. Good people who have previously gone unrecognized come crawling out of the woodwork when you turn on the light. I help organizations create purpose-driven cultures and it’s fun to watch what happens to the people who “get it.” They excel in a culture where they can be partners in a purpose that is positive, powerful, simple and serving.

Changing a culture is not easy and requires an investment of time and money. You have to, in Texas Hold ‘Em terms, go all in. But the benefits are worth the investment. Productivity and morale improves, turnover decreases. Finding, hiring and keeping good people gets easier because when choosing a job, culture does indeed matter. So, leaders, what kind of people do you want in your organization? Good or bad? It’s your choice because you’re the keepers of the culture.

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