What type of culture does your business need?
Your answer will likely differ, depending on your organisation’s strategy and context.
Typical answers range from a ‘safety culture’ to a ‘coaching culture’. Regardless of the type of culture, I’ve found that answers typically assume that the organisation should have a ‘strong’ culture.
A ‘strong’ culture is one where there is greater consistency in terms of what’s valued and how people behave across geographies, levels and functions.
But is stronger really better?
The assumption that stronger cultures are typically better is supported by studies revealing how stronger cultures typically predict organisational performance.1 However, research elsewhere has shown contradictory results by documenting the benefits of sub-cultures.2
The findings make sense if you think about them in the real world.
There are some cultural behaviours that bring success in, let’s say, both your law team and your creative designers. Kindness and proactivity, for example. However, integrity is likely more important for the legal professional. Equally, creativity is likely far more important for the creative designer.
Where most fall down (and how to avoid this)
There’s a clear tension between consistency (i.e. a ‘strong’ culture) and flexibility (i.e. a ‘weak’ culture).
Often, organisations take time to create shared values or competencies to define their aspirational culture. However, they then assume that these should apply to all their people, regardless of their context. They assume stronger is better.
When working with our clients, we ask ourselves:
1. What are the non-negotiables?
The values and behaviours expected from all people, regardless of where they sit in the business.
2. Where can there be freedom in the framework?
This might be different behaviours expected or it might just be allowing for varying importance placed on the same behaviours.
There is often no straightforward answer to how strong your culture should be. However, here are three things we’ve learned…
1.Be guided by the homogeneity of your organisation.
If most people are in similar roles and locations, then a strong culture is probably the way to go. You don’t need to provide as much flexibility when embedding the behaviours.
2. Know when you need to provide the answers.
There are times where you need to be clear about what’s expected. One clear example of this is how expectations differ across levels, which can then inform assessment, recruitment and reward purposes.
3. But also recognise when you don’t need the answers.
You’ll get yourself into a sticky situation if you start dictating the right values and behaviours in a prescriptive way. It’s often better to share clear guidelines that give managers the autonomy to apply the framework in a way that drives the right behaviours from their part of the business.
If you want to talk about balancing cultural consistency with sub-cultures, then please get in touch.
1. Sørensen, J. B. (2002). The strength of corporate culture and the reliability of firm performance. Administrative science quarterly, 47(1), 70-91.
2. Chandler, N., Csepregi, A., & Heidrich, B. (2018). The world I know: knowledge sharing and subcultures in large complex organisations. Knowledge Management in the Sharing Economy: Cross-Sectoral Insights into the Future of Competitive Advantage, 117-143.
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