Organizational Culture is a Dirty Word

Bay Adelaide Center

A friend of mine is an anthropology professor who refuses to let her students use the word “culture” in the classroom. She says that the term is overused and it prevents students from talking about what they actually mean. She’s right. When I hear someone say “it’s because of the organizational culture” to explain the reasons why an organization did something, it makes me twitchy.

Our media has begun to use this term a lot recently, and I’m getting more and more cranky about it.

  • Recent secret tapes about the Federal Reserve employees ineffectually regulating Goldman Sachs is concluded with a discussion of the problems with the organizational culture (This American Life/ProPublica).
  • Reports about the fact that General Motors neglected to recall defective cars is called a “cultural failing”. (WSJ).
  • The problems with Veteran’s Affairs is discussed is explained by saying there was a “corrosive culture” that led to inaction and lack of employee morale. (Politico).

The problem is that each of these news articles concludes with the idea that the culture has to change, without a sense of what *about* the culture needs to change. In the end, culture becomes a convenient scapegoat that describes the problem ambiguously enough to make any solution equally vague and meaningless. When we say “the culture needs to change” we are not saying what we actually mean, we’re saying that someone else needs to fix the amorphous social thing that’s bad.

Culture becomes an invisible substance, like the weather, that we know exists and we can blame things on but which we never have to actually take responsibility for.  We put on a puffy coat when it’s cold, but we don’t consider ourselves the cause of that snowstorm, we just prevent it from affecting us.

Organizational culture is not the weather. Collectively, we do control the culture of the environment we are in while also being affected by it. We create the snowstorm and we create the puffy coats. We create the environments we are in through the stories we tell, the way we interact, the things we celebrate, the activities we put our energy into. Every single day we create and recreate the culture.

I’m not saying that it’s easy to try to create new way of doing things or to exist within a toxic environment. I’m not saying all cultures should or even can be changed. There are very real, very important barriers to making changes within an organization that need to be acknowledged and understood.

What I am saying is that if as a society we have agreed that it is unacceptable for a bank to refuse to be regulated, the culture of an organization should not make regulation impossible. 

What I am saying is that if we decide that we want to hold organizations to strict safety standards and to ensure that their negligence does not cause deaths in people using their products. Organizational culture should not hold us back from enacting those standards.  

What I am saying is that if we decide that our veterans should get care that is due to them for their willingness to serve our country, we ought to not rest with the simple conclusion that organizational culture is at fault for our inability to give them the care they deserve.  

If we blame organizational problems on culture without a deeper inquiry into why or how this culture is creating problems, there is very real possibility that there will be no change. 

External consultants will create a laundry list of small changes that add up to no changes at all or “new leadership” is brought in to do the ambiguous and Herculean task of “changing the culture” and find that it’s more challenging than they expected. Or, nothing at all happens. Because once we’ve decided that culture is the problem, we all know that culture is hard to change. We default to throwing our hands up in the air and saying “Oh well”.

We have to stop blaming offensive organizational behavior on culture and saying that we have no control over it. Yes it is a challenge to change organizations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.

Photo: Reto Fetz