A famous management consultant, Pete Drucker, is credited with the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, implying that culture is the most important ingredient for a company’s success.
Make no mistake about it, every single organization has a culture, regardless if it was strategically designed and crafted, or if it just formed by happenstance.
So, what exactly is a culture, and how did it get there? Let’s talk about that. Note: this article will not delve into “how” a leader shapes culture. That topic will be discussed in a follow up article. The intent of this article is to discuss the notion of what cultures are, their characteristics, and how they are formed.
Characteristics of Culture
What is culture?
In short – a culture is ultimately nothing more than a bunch of individual behaviors mixed together.
It is generally defined as the norms, beliefs, and values of a group of people, and it is often unconscious. As they say, “If you want to know about the water, don’t ask the fish”. The fish lives in the water, but it has never seen otherwise. People that have traveled to other organizations, other states, or other countries generally have a better understanding of the concept of culture than those who have not, as these experiences can open a person’s eyes to the notion that everyone and every place is not the same.
Where does culture come from? It is formed by the founder(s) of an organization. Take any organization, no matter how old, examine its culture, and you will find that it is almost always reflective of the organization’s roots.
Cultures are Deeply Rooted and Resistant to Change
If you search on Amazon.com for “change management”, you get over 20,000 results. If you do the same search for leadership, you get over 50,000 results. There is a reason for this. Both are incredibly complicated and have many variables. Change management primarily deals with changing organizational culture. It certainly can and has been done successfully many times, but it is challenging because cultures are typically anchored in years of human behavior, and it takes a concerted, focused effort to genuinely change them. As recruiters, we occasionally get calls from companies requesting ‘a change agent’. Ultimately what they are looking for is a manager that can come in, accurately assess the organization, and begin to shape it in a positive way. These types of leaders are unsurprisingly in high demand.
Cultures are ingrained because most people are wired in a way in which they find their comfort zone and they don’t care to move out of that zone, even if it is no longer working. In the book, ‘Who Moved My Cheese’, author Spencer Johnson tells an incredibly simple story about two mice in a maze, yet it is a best seller because it captures the essence of how most people resist change; even change that is needed for sustainment and survival! Often, not just one, two, three, but all four wheels have to fall off the car before someone is willing to change. That is too late. Let us share a couple humorous illustrations of why cultures are enduring; sometimes illogically enduring, even to the detriment of the company as a whole.
Cultures Aren’t Always Logical
In our world today, change is happening at exponential speeds. What we did 20 years ago may have made perfect sense then. However, much has changed since and if we don’t raise our hand and ask questions, we can find ourselves doing things that make no sense. Cultures often work like this.
To illustrate this, let us share with you a great a story about Mary’s deliciously cooked ham. Whenever Mary cooked her specially prepared ham, dinner guests could not get enough. So much so that they talked for days afterward with family and friends about how good the ham tasted.
One evening, a guest inquisitively asked Mary her secret of how was she able to prepare such succulent ham? Mary replied, “It is a family tradition. Just before cooking it, I cut off each end of the ham. I have been doing it this way for years and it always comes out delicious”. Not understanding her explanation, the guest inquired further, “I see, but how does this make the ham taste better”? Mary exclaimed, “I really don’t’ know. That is how my mother taught me to do it”.
This discussion sparked curiosity with Mary. Hoping to find the meaning behind the family secret, Mary visited her mother the next day. She asked, “Mom, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before cooking?” Unfortunately, this effort did not uncover any secrets. Her mom replied, “Well honey, this is how my mother taught me to do it. This is how I have always done it and everyone has always loved the ham”.
Now, with even higher curiosity, the next day Mary went to visit her grandmother. She couldn’t wait to ask, “Grandmother, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before you cook it? Does it cook better this way, or does it have something to do with the juices”? “Oh no, my dear”, exclaimed her grandmother. “It has nothing to do with those things”. With a puzzled look, Mary replied, “But then why do you cut off both ends of the ham”? Her grandmother answered, “Because that is the only way it will fit into my pan”. (author unknown)
This is a humorous story that illustrates how we sometimes fail to think about why we do the things we do. If we are not careful, we end up carrying on blind traditions that may have been supported by good reason at one time in history, but no longer make any sense at all.
5 Monkeys in a Cage
This is another fantastic example of how behavior can be passed on to others within an organization, regardless of whether it is good for the team as a whole.
An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.
The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.
The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.
Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.
These examples help illustrate the characteristics of cultures and their inherent stability. This is the nature of most people and how they are wired.
There are many leadership articles and books about how to change a culture. We will save that topic for another article. Before we talk about changing a culture, we must first understand how people work individually and how people work collectively, which ultimately is what forms a culture.
Hopefully, after reading this article, we can now better understand why it is human nature to be resistant to change, and how most people are generally wired to find stability and predictability. However, there are those exceptionally unique leaders who are wired differently. They are able to see what can be, instead of just what is, and they are inspired to take others to that place.
Ann Zaslow-Rethaber is President of International Search Consultants, a leader in Executive Recruiting since 1999. You can reach Ann directly via email at or direct dial at 88-866-7276. Please feel free to call ISC today to find exceptional candidates for all of your critical fill positions, including change agents!
Matt Ohrt the HR Director for Merrill Steel, the largest structural steel fabricator in the Midwest. Matt is an executive leader with over 20 years of experience in organizational development, lean manufacturing, strategic healthcare, and human resources. You can reach Matt directly at 715-393-4107. You can also find Matt on LinkedIn,
As always, we look forward to your feedback. Please let us know your experiences with company cultures and what has worked best for you when tasked with changing your teams work environment. We just may interview you for our next article!