The Blame Game: Culture


It’s fascinating to me how buzzwords take over our industry.  The sad part is that most of them are just a lot of talk, not a lot of action.  You know the buzzword I’m about to mention – AI – but lucky you, this isn’t another post about AI.  It’s about the second most often used buzzword in my world right now: culture.

Culture discussions come with a litany of other buzzword bingo vocabulary as of late.  Culture fit, culture add, and transparency just to name a few.  There’s this perception that culture is something tangible and you can build it and manipulate it to be exactly what you want.  That it’s like a technology system.  You unplug it and migrate to a new tool and all of a sudden, your problems are in the past.

Fake news.

But regardless, culture gets all the credit for good and bad in an organization.  When things are good, a great culture gets all the credit for good people doing great things. But when it’s bad, culture gets the blame, too. Look at all the talk about Weinstein.  The news started with a ton of stories about him, but now they are turning to the company culture to place blame on a team that clearly ignored and normalized the behavior.  What kind of company just lets something terrible keep happening? Most of them is the unfortunate answer.  Most companies turn a blind eye when an executive showcases their terrible behaviors. There’s a hands-off attitude when it comes to HR managing the expectations and behavior of senior executives. And that’s just one building block for a terrible culture.

Can You Change Culture?

We know how bad culture happens but can you change it? I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to believe culture is a cop out. No engagement? Bad behavior? “It’s our culture, we’re trying.” Why is that OK? So, I went to Twitter to share my disdain for culture last week and started an interesting conversation to sort out an answer.

The first answer was an issue we have with a lot of HR fundamentals: it’s hard to measure.  We can’t put a timeline on it or pay for some tool to show growth over time accurately, then slap some artificial metric on the way people change and evolve.  No survey is going to give you an accurate view of culture because if your culture sucks, your people don’t even trust a digital survey.  They don’t trust anything will change and without that trust, there’s no interest in being honest.  People click four on every scaled response and hit submit so their manager doesn’t get on their case.

Then, Paul Hebert stepped in to talk about causation.  He pointed out that culture isn’t a cause, it’s an outcome of the way we behave. Would you say “my kids are bad because we have a bad culture” or “we reinforce things that allow my kids to be bad”? Which is actionable?  Behaviors, of course, which are also formed by the processes and systems a company adopts. Culture is hard to “fix” because it may very well mean a full redo.

Now, I’m waiting for some HR Technology company to tell me that they have a tool for this.  But, Mary Faulkner already squashed that idea. She said, and I agree, that systems enable human action (or support them) but a system does not create culture.  People do. I don’t have to cede humanity to a process. Yet too often, people dismiss the impact that systems have on culture. Bad systems can absolutely contribute to a bad culture.

The bottom line?  Values and beliefs are the foundation of a culture.  Culture is an artifact of behaviors – mostly management behaviors. Don’t blame the artifact, blame the creator.

To which, Paul said “That sounds like a blog post!” And now, it is.