Employee-Led Cultures—Let the People Go Culture!

Cultures do not emerge from a definition in a book or a category in a framework. They act as living organisms that evolve.

culturesA recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” January 2018, outlines a framework to assess corporate culture themes and types. The authors did a wonderful job in isolating distinct possible cultures such as “Results-oriented” and “Caring-focused.”

The proposed integrated culture framework, which combines the response to change (stability vs. flexibility) with people interaction (independence vs. interdependence), seemed to make logical sense. Until it didn’t. As I reflected on the nicely developed framework and rationale, I had one nagging issue that wouldn’t leave me alone, something was just not right with it. I wanted to believe in it. It made complete sense. And then I had my “aha” moment.

As I reflected on the over 200 transformations our firm has been involved in, I tried to map my clients to the different categories. Who is in results? Who fits into learning? Who is declaring enjoyment? The answer: all of them and none of them, all at once.

Cultures are a multi-layer ecosystem with so many aspects to them to claim that one organization is in “results” and, therefore, not in “learning” is just too simplistic. To argue that one organization is all about “safety” and, therefore, not “caring” is missing the point. They do care. They care about what matters to them, safety.

“Cultures do not emerge from a definition in a book or a category in a framework.”

There is always a risk in trying to beautifully categorize human characteristics and personalities. The challenge grows when you do that to large groups of people. Any attempt to label them will create a description that will be either too generic or inaccurate.

I have yet to meet a CEO who does not consider their culture to be “results-oriented, caring, learning, safety, enjoyment, purpose, and order” (all our possible categories in the new integrated culture framework). You may claim that they are delusional. The truth, however, is far more complex. And missing its complexity is missing the ability to move forward and address it.

Now what?

Cultures do not emerge from a definition in a book or a category in a framework. They act as living organisms that evolve and mutate because of reaction to different occurrences and opportunities. They start with an entrepreneurial DNA reflecting the founder’s few and then mutate based on the history and achievements of the organization. By and large, cultures are employee-led, not executive-led. Employees, their behaviors, and stories are what shape culture.

It is time to respect the culture and work within its natural growth ecosystem rather than to try to box it into pretty labels. No executive will accept a one-dimensional culture and more importantly, their employees will dismiss it upfront.

To obtain a certain culture, one needs to be deliberate about its design and growth. But instead of doing so through top-down labeling, we need to engage employees to embrace it and bring their authority to the game.

Imagine the following CEO memo:

“To all employees,

Today we reviewed the latest culture assessment, and we discovered that we are leaning towards authority and away from caring. Our culture is a culture of caring and I expect each and every one of you to start caring as hard as you can. Our future is dependent on it.

Your caring, less authoritative CEO.”

While sound ridiculous, it is not too far away in messaging and tonality form some of the mandated cultures initiatives we have seen.

Culture is what happens when the CEO leaves the room. It is what employees do when they want to, not have to. Employee-led cultural transformation is especially more critical today as the talent working for us is more empowered and authoritative about their own lives and seek purpose in everything they do.


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