Posted on Nov 05, 2022Read on

WTF is Organizational Culture

«Culture is the secret sauce of organizations: the half that you can’t just fork» wrote some researchers [1]. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, thunder management «gurus» around the world. Claims like these make culture look as mysterious as powerful despite their vagueness. Then, WTF is organizational culture really?

I have never been a fan of the concept of «organizational culture». I don’t like it when I don’t know what I am talking about. Research on the subject dates back at least as far as the late 1970s. Academics have published over 5,500 scientific papers since then. Although there is a plethora of publications in both popular management books and academic literature, there hasn’t been a sharp, accepted definition of the concept. We still can’t agree on what organizational culture really is.

Recently, former Director of People & Organization Capability at Microsoft, David White Jr., published a book titled «Disrupting corporate culture». It looks at culture from the lens of cognitive science, sharing some great ideas. Here I take from Dr. White and share with you.

There are at least three myths on organizational culture

Myth #1: «One organization, one culture»

You may assume every society, or every organization have one unique culture. And you may be wrong! Where does the boundary between cultures starts? Where does it end? An organizations’ Developers Squad may operate under different assumptions, stories, symbols, etc. then a Marketing Guild. Another team, same org, may operate under other cultural signs. In fact, the «Dunbar’s Number» says that people can maintain a max of 150 social relationships at any time. Beyond a certain size, single culture sense-making is impossible. While all people may belong to the same organization, they abide to multiple cultures simultaneously, especially in global, multi-ethnic, diverse organizations.

Myth #2: «Culture is what we say we care about»

Cynicism. I bet anyone reading this myth can relate to that feeling of cold cynicism that comes with reading corporate values like «respect and integrity» or norms like «we are the excellence behind excellences», «we do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time», «we lead by example»… you name it. Top-down culture dictatorships aiming to instill and set culture in motion by making feel good statements ignore three things:

  • one, there’s no such a thing as a single culture;

  • two, culture is porous and knowledge shapes it, that is, while one leads by example another leads by coercion.

  • and three, norms or values as such are NOT culture. They may be part of it but not the full picture. For instance, norms influence behavior depending on context. You are not always leading by (good) example. Or else, what one group actually do may not be what an outsider think that group should do. There no such thing as universal norms.

On the other side, problems with values are:

  • they are abstractions that mean different things to different people;

  • they are ideas about how the world should be rather than reflections of what the world is;

  • to effectively work as should’s, values need to be already present in a group for newcomers to follow them;

  • they are surface-level expressions of what is going on underneath, that is, values of respect and integrity may be desires born out of diffused mistreatment and wrongdoing;

  • finally, they are not transmitted by telling people what to believe or how to behave; as the old saying goes, people don’t do what you tell them to do, they do what they get money for.

Myth #3:  «Culture equals behaviors»

To change culture, change behaviors. WRONG! As we will see soon, culture is not behavior but knowledge, taken-for-granted beliefs, and tacit assumptions, about how to operate in a domain. Behavior relates to culture in that culture can affect the boundaries within which people behave. Yet behavior can largely be independent from culture when it’s largely driven by situational constraints and instincts. Or behavior as much as values can be a compensation for deeper cultural forces. Ultimately actual behavior depends on context and is far more idiosyncratic than what cultural predictions would suggest. As Dr. White puts it:

To reduce culture to behavior is to radically oversimplify one of the most complex constructs of human experience.

All these myths are based on outdated science, misconceptions, half-truths, or just plain wishful thinking. Dr. White goes a long way explaining why we can thank MBA courses and culture change practitioners for this mess. Like most organizational health problems, culture suffers from reductionism and oversimplification. The old problem of focusing on symptoms rather than root causes permeates culture’s practitioners and scholars’ writing and doing.

How can we clear up the mudder from organizational culture?

Taking an analytical, logical approach to questioning culture we can ask:

●      WTF is culture?

Is it values, beliefs, norms, stories, memes? Everything? Anything?

●      How the hell can you measure it?

Can you quantify it? Or qualify it? Or sense it in experience? Or only make it up in your mind?

●      Where does it start and where does it end?

Is it a block of stone? Or a ramification of mushrooms? Or a sponge?

●      Where does it come from?

Founders and leaders? Or community? Or nationality? Or religion?

●      How can you change it?

Writing new values’ statements? Walking the talk as leaders? Through shocks? Or through small painstaking incremental actions?

What’s next

In the next article we will dive into some answers to these questions using the cognitive science behind the new «cultural mind». I will make an informed attempt to save us from pinky flying cows, aiming to get over the dangerous half-truths and total nonsense of pop business chatting that permeated the discourse on organizational culture for decades.

Stay with me…

This is my 1st out of 3-4 pieces for talentDAO Writers Guild Cohort with


D.G. White Jr. (2021). Disrupting Corporate Culture: how cognitive science alters accepted beliefs about culture and culture change and its impact on leaders and change agents. Routledge

Cover image generated by Mr.Nobody with DALL·E 2