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Illustration by Gordon Studer

Creating Culture Together

​Researchers Nancy Rothbard and Olivia O'Neill recently undertook a comprehensive analysis of the organizational culture of firefighters. In this examination, two characteristics of the culture stood out.

One was joviality. Managers said their philosophy of hiring was "No stiffs," and the firehouse played host to an ongoing series of jokes and pranks, as well as with frequent, fairly good-natured trash talking.

This second characteristic of the culture—which the female researchers hadn't expected to see in this typically masculine profession—was something organizational psychologists call "companionate love": a platonic yet compassionate bonding among coworkers. (The study—detailed in the article "Is Love All You Need?"—was published last December in the Academy of Management Journal.)

And so, accompanying the pranks and trash talk were regular displays of emotional support, such as words of encouragement when someone was struggling after a tough fire, and physical gestures of affections, like a pat on the back or a bear hug for a firefighter struggling with personal life issues.

From a management perspective, there was another key finding: the two cultural characteristics proved key in sustaining strong job performance. The teasing honed the firefighters' understanding of each other's weaknesses and blind spots—known to anthropologists as the evolutionary advantage of play. This helped teams coordinate and collaborate, given that managing and monitoring weaknesses is particularly important in fast-moving and risky work situations.

Conversely, the companionate love and emotional support helped the firefighters work through the everyday traumas of their job and continue performing at a high level. The two qualities also tempered each other; the caring and affection kept the jokes and pranks from becoming too hurtful or isolating.

Outside the firehouse, the link between culture and performance has gained wider acceptance. In a survey of 2,200 global business leaders, 84 percent said they believed that that their organization's culture was critical to their business success. And 60 percent even said that culture is more important than actual business strategy, and more important than a business operations model.

But the study also found a widespread need for culture change. A majority of respondents (51 percent) said that the culture of their own company needed a major overhaul. And less than half (45 percent) said their company's culture was effectively managed. The study, Culture and Change Management Survey, was conducted by The Katzenbach Center at PwC and issued in 2013.

But before a culture can be changed it must be understood. This can be tricky. If you are a security manager, head of a security company, or some other type of leader, it is likely that your own behaviors and beliefs influence the culture of your organization. Moreover, you probably have an intuitive feel for your workplace and what it's like to work at your company. But you might find it difficult to accurately describe the culture, to articulate its characteristics, and interpret its features.

Such an understanding can be developed through an assessment of organizational culture, management experts say. In essence, the assessment process works by answering a series of questions that are designed to elicit information on different aspects of the organization's culture.

The actual question-and-answer format might vary, based on what the managers are trying to assess, says Diane Hamilton, a management expert and owner of Calibra, a consulting firm experienced in organizational culture assessments. A leader who wants to assess the entire organization's culture might interview a sampling of staffers in every department, to get an effective cross-section of the firm. Alternatively, a security manager who supervises a small department of five employees might interview all staffers, she explains.

If interviews are not possible, managers should answer the questions for themselves as objectively as possible. Whichever method is used, the end result is a better understanding of the culture. "I think the process is such that you can start to peel back the onion and learn about the underlying values and assumptions," Hamilton says, adding that the process can be done "formally or informally."

Before conducting the assessment, Hamilton explains, managers should first be able to answer the larger questions of: "What are you trying to create, and why?" Take, for example, a security company whose mission is providing IT security solutions. The business objective of the company is be as innovative as possible, so the company aspires to create a collaborative and nimble culture where everyone can contribute, great ideas are shared, and people work freely with one another in productive and creative teams.

The assessment should then be approached with that cultural aspiration in mind. Questions should be aimed at finding out whether the culture supports behaviors, actions, and arrangements that facilitate collaboration, an openness to new ideas, and selfless teamwork. Or, does the culture permit, and in some ways reward, information hoarding, working in silos, and selfish accomplishments at the expense of others? ​


Conceptual models may also help the assessment process. For example, a model proposed by George Bradt, a management expert and leadership columnist for, may be more specifically helpful to the assessment process in that it maps out the culture in five categories, symbolized by BRAVE: Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values, and Environment.

The culture assessment questions can be grouped under one of the five BRAVE categories, as shown below. Bradt, who is also the author of The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan and has worked at several large organizations including Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, offered workplace examples from his experience to illustrate what can be learned about the culture from the assessment questions. Andrew Woods, workplace issues expert, did the same.

Behaviors. Behaviors are rewarded differently in different cultures; Bradt illustrates this with a story about a U.S. Army colonel temporarily stationed on a Navy ship. On a Navy vessel, one bad mistake can sink the entire ship, so behaviors that are reinforced are rigid command-and-control actions: crisp decisions made, clear directions given, orders followed to the letter, and strong rank stratification.

However, when the Army colonel stationed on the Navy ship decided to go to the ship store, he patiently waited in line at the ship store and said "Good morning" to an enlisted man behind him. Instead of responding, the enlisted man immediately ran away. The colonel's behaviors were not appropriate for the Navy's workplace culture: Navy high officers do not wait in lines. Nor do they make small talk with enlistees.    

On the other hand, at an organization such as open source coding IT company Red Hat, a staffer may simply disregard a suggestion by the CEO and face no negative consequences for such behavior if the staffer thinks that acting on the suggestion would conflict with the company's ultimate mission to protect the Internet, Bradt explains. "There, the only thing that matters is the code," he says. 

Behavior assessment questions can reveal gaps between the current culture and the culture the organization aspires to. A company may aspire to a collaborative culture but lack a compensation system that rewards successful teamwork and behaviors. Similarly, an assessment may reveal that behavior that company leaders profess not to want might still be rewarded anyway.  

For example, research shows that "threat rigidity"—the tendency to narrow one's focus under threat—puts excessive stress on the prefrontal cortex of the brain and impairs functions such as judgment, memory, and impulse control. Given this, a company may aspire to a culture that makes for a supportive and forgiving workplace, yet counterproductively reward high-performing managers who yell at others and use anger and intimidation instead of proper coaching methods.

Finally, behaviors also can also have ripple effects. Facial expressions and body language are both powerful; a manager who often comes to work looking angry, even unintentionally, may cultivate a culture of anger. Studies have found that many professionals from different organizations actually feel more comfortable expressing anger than joy on the job, and so report expressing anger more often than joy.

Behavior assessment questions include:

  • Which behaviors in the workplace are reinforced and rewarded?
  • Which behaviors face negative consequences?
  • Are there gaps between what behaviors are asked for and what is rewarded?​

Relationships. There are many levels of communication and webs of relationships in any workplace. Colleagues talk informally, employees from different departments work together. Some staffers like organized social functions, others prefer one-on-one situations. "No organization actually functions based on its organizational chart," Bradt says.  

Loose social networks are important because they can spill over into operations, enhancing opportunities for collaboration and strengthening teamwork. "It's the carpools, the people that go hunting together, the people that go to the opera together," Bradt says. He offered the example from his tenure at Coca-Cola, where the CEO and the head of marketing always seemed in sync during meetings. "We never understood how they could finish each other sentences—until we found that they had gone fishing together every Saturday morning for 14 years," he says.

Hamilton points to workplace research on engagement by the Gallup organization, which has shown that employees who consider at least one coworker a close personal friend are more likely to say they are engaged at work.  

On the other hand, resentments and rivalries between staffers can hurt operations. A company may desire a culture that encourages friendly competition as a means of maximizing performance, but that can mean that department heads, believing that they are all in competition for an executive promotion, do not work together smoothly when needed.

Relationship questions include:

  • Who talks frequently to whom?
  • Are there a lot of cross-departmental relationships? Rivalries?
  • What are the behind-the-scenes social networks?

Attitudes. Andrew Woods cites Marriott Hotels and CEO Bill Marriott's "The Spirit to Serve" philosophy as a good example of positive attitude transfer. "The idea is that if we look after each other internally, the guest will always have an exceptional stay," Woods says. "Loyalty among customers and pride of employees are all covered here."

In the same vein, Bradt says that comparing staff attitudes when working with other staff versus working with customers and external stakeholders can be particularly telling. In some cultures, staffers' attitudes are more positive when working with fellow employees, but less so when dealing with customers and external stakeholders. This can make a comfortable workplace environment, but one with looming and unacknowledged problems.

Attitude questions include:

  • How are customers, suppliers, and other external stakeholders treated?
  • In the office, is the atmosphere more formal or more casual?
  • Is teasing and edgy joking (such as in the firehouse scenario) encouraged or dissuaded?

Values."Stories are magic. When you listen to the stories and myths of an organization, it's amazing what you learn," Bradt says.

An organization's values are often embedded in the stories that its staffers tell to each other and to new employees. Some stories are about heroes; others about antiheroes. Heroes can be an ideal leader, or the colorful fun worker—employees who bolster the culture. An antihero may be someone who has been shunned, or vanquished like a dragon, because of specific behaviors damaging to the culture. Companies with more antihero stories than hero stories may reflect a culture that has foundered without positive leadership. "Companies' stories are part of the culture," Woods says. "Stories and traditions are huge bonuses to culture."

According to Bradt, Hewlett-Packard keeps a photo of the garage in which its founding partners worked, conveying that the company still admires the traditional values of a family business. But in recent years, few employees could identify the significance of the photo, indicating that the company had strayed from its original values.

Values questions include:

  • What values are communicated internally and externally, explicitly and implicitly?
  • What stories or legends do people tell about the organization?
  • What ceremonies are celebrated?

Environment. "Symbols, logos and rituals are very useful in reinforcing culture. A definite link to morale and culture is apparent here," Woods says. In some cases, it can be the most obvious sign that a culture needs to be modified and or strengthened.

He cites Google as a useful example in this category, because he sees a link between its colorful use of logos, innovative workplace, and creative operations. "Google has a strong culture and strong use of artifacts, including office setup and design," he says.

On the other hand, Bradt offered his experience of interviewing at Goodyear headquarters many years ago, which had lush carpets "you just kind of sank" into, walls of heavy mahogany, and interior offices with no views of the occupants inside. "That did not feel like a really open work environment," he says.

Office décor can also reflect culture. Photos of employees clowning around at social events or cartoon figures perched on cubicle walls can suggest an upbeat and positive workplace.

Well-cushioned chairs and tissues in small break rooms convey that it's okay for employees to cry if they need to. Signs with lists of rules can reflect a culture of fear.

Environment questions include:

  • What does the workplace "feel" like when you are working there?
  • Is the floor plan open and collaborative, or filled with closed-off offices?
  • What do the physical brand symbols and logos connote?​


If an assessment reveals significant gaps between the organization's current culture and the culture that is aligned with the mission and business objectives of the organization, the current culture needs to be changed.

There is not a one-size-fits-all formula for doing this. Different organizations want to change cultures in different ways, and have different methods at their disposal. Compensation changes can be made to better reward productive behavior. Programs can be added to facilitate relationships. Training can be introduced for attitude modifications. New leadership can be brought in. The list is almost endless. 

Although these changes can vary widely, there are best-practice principles that will apply to most organizations trying to change their culture, experts say. And one overarching principle is that leaders should always attempt to co-create the new culture with staff rather than imposing it on employees from above. "Practice partnering, not parenting," says Brady G. Wilson, management expert and author of the book, Beyond Engagement.

The brain perceives shared responsibility—such as a manager and an employee both being accountable for task completion—as a risk, Wilson explains. Sometimes, this pushes leaders into parental-like behaviors, such as calling employees into their office for a scolding, or for a frown-filled do-you-realize-how-badly-you-messed-up conversation. But this heightens negativity in the workplace, can be demoralizing, and often hurts performance. "Managing by shame, obligation, and guilt, through manipulation and control—it destroys the employees' ongoing and sustainable energy," he says. 

Instead, a leader can make a shift to a partnering managerial style. Wilson defines partnering as "two people standing for each other's success," with the goal of working together to create a new culture that both managers and staffers will be willing to implement. "What if managers sat down with employees to understand what matters most to them in their work?" Wilson says. If they do so, leaders can use these conversations to guide their efforts in changing the culture, and continue to consult with staffers—who are all partners in the new enterprise—on the development of any changes designed to improve the culture.

The co-creation management approach can also lead to an increase in meaningful employee engagement, Wilson adds. "The employees feel like, 'My managers listen to me and respect my ideas. They are proud of my contributions to the organization. My managers care about me as a person,'" he says.

Below, Wilson offers some best practice guidance in moving forward on the culture change process.

When implementing cultural changes, think in terms of employee needs, energy, and emotions. In seeking culture change, some managers will simply give staffers new assignments to boost productivity. But too often, the end result is further overworking an already overburdened staff. Staffers who pride themselves on fulfilling assignments may not complain—and even volunteer to take on more work—when in truth they are close to burning out, and meaningful engagement will suffer.

"If they feel that they are being micromanaged, that their input is not being heard, that leaders are only interested in them as a piece of chattel—that's a dehumanizing experience, so why would they go above the call of duty?" says Wilson.

Thus, it is the manager's responsibility to think in terms of energy builders and rejuvenators for staff—strategies to take some work off their plates, whether it be targeted small-scale outsourcing, elimination of  tasks with little ROI, or encouraging longer vacations and time off. 

By being protective of employees' energy resources, leaders can change a work-until-you-drop culture to a more sustainable one. Wilson advises that a manager sit down with a staffer and conduct a simple energy check, asking "What is it that's energizing you? What is it that's depleting you?"

Deliver experiences, not more promises. Sometimes, leaders will attempt to change a culture by implementing elaborate new initiatives like recognition/reward programs and intricate performance management systems. But if the systems do not positively change the culture in the eyes of employees, this can create workplace cynicism and lead employees to see the changes as something of a con game.

"Unless it feels to employees that it is meaningful to them, it just feels like another form of colonization. The employee feels like—you're imposing this upon me, and I didn't have anything to say about it," Wilson says.

Instead, managers should focus on what the new experience will be like for workers and how it will improve their time in the culture. "Employees don't care about scores, they care about their lived experience at work," Wilson says.

Information does not change people, relationships do. Sometimes, organization leaders will decide that the culture is being harmed by the practices of middle managers. This may result in a 360-type review, in which the manager receives low scores. But this alone is not an effective vehicle for change.

"We do a review, and the evidence is very damaging. We put [the manager] in a corner, get him some coaching. But he still doesn't change, because it's not information that changes people. It is interactions and relationships that really matter," Wilson says.

So, reviews should be followed with a series of conversations with upper management and front-line staffers, so that the manager can better understand the impact of his or her actions. Over time, this can lead to behavior modifications that make for positive culture change. 


to employees are crucial. Employee needs vary. Common ones are freedom to do the job properly, the feeling that their work has significance, fulfilling work relationships with colleagues, and support and encouragement from higher management.

But these needs are also highly differentiated. Each worker has a different idea of what they mean in practice. If a manager assumes they know what the employee means when they mention one of these needs, "they can miss it by a country mile," Wilson says. For example, many staffers say they have a need for freedom—enough space to do their own job, without being micromanaged. But among employees who state this need, the actual amount of engagement they want with their supervisor can vary widely, so managers should not assume they want to be left alone all the time. 

So, in one-on-one conversations with employees, managers can ask questions that flesh out these individualized needs. "It's understanding that you need a profound level of connection to your employees, and to what matters to them—as a partner," Wilson says. And that connection doesn't happen overnight; it develops and builds on itself over time, and can be time-consuming. But in the end, such connections can have a profoundly positive effect on an organization's culture.

"It happens one conversation at a time," Wilson says.  ​