How a Big Why Creates a Bigger We

Every organization I talk to, regardless of size or industry, complains of the harmful effects of silos, or what one client calls — with winking gallows humor — “cylinders of excellence.”

Rigid silos — departments and teams that don’t cooperate, that don’t trust one another, that steal cupcakes from each other’s break rooms — create gobs of organizational dysfunctions. Heavily siloed organizations can’t solve challenging and meaningful problems. They’re unable to respond efficiently and effectively to external threats or opportunities. They don’t deliver their full potential value to suppliers, customers, shareholders, or employees. They aren’t nimble or flexible or adaptable, and they sure as heck aren’t agile.

At the root of all this is what I’ve come to call a “narrow sense of We.”

A narrow sense of We in the workplace

At work, our sense of We often starts and ends with our immediate team or department. As employees, this narrow sense of We can cause us to over-identify with our team and under-identify with our company, our industry, or with our ecosystem of suppliers, customers, shareholders, coworkers, and communities. As leaders, a narrow We might mean over-identifying with our peers and viewing the rest of our company as They.

When our sense of We is narrow, our sense of They is correspondingly broad. When was the last time you spoke with frustration about a They within your own company? Maybe it’s that team you just know isn’t working as hard as your team. Perhaps it’s management, who never seems to want to work with the union. Maybe it’s the senior leadership in your company, who are thoroughly out of touch with your day-to-day reality. Or, if you’re one of those senior leaders, maybe it’s those continually griping employees who don’t get the big picture.

This “We-versus-They” talk might seem harmless enough. It might even make your We stronger. After all, a common enemy (i.e., a shared definition of They) has a way of strengthening our internal alliances.

But a narrow sense of We has real business costs and consequences. A narrow sense of We means we don’t share a vision for the future with They. We don’t share a sense of purpose or even shared standards for how we treat one another. It might mean We focus on the status and health of our team at the expense of another team, or even of the whole company. In this environment, the larger We achieves less, and the smaller We operates with a counterproductive siege mentality, defending our turf, protecting our status, and suffering from all the stress and negative emotions that go along with that.

If we want to achieve great things at work, to solve challenging and meaningful problems, and to live and work in constructive cultures — we must cultivate a broader sense of We.

A narrow sense of We in the world

The subculture of our workplace is in continual dialogue with the culture of the society in which we live. The beliefs, assumptions, and expectations we cultivate at work cross over into our social worlds and spill over onto our closest friends and family members. Just as we rarely completely leave our personal lives at the office door, we carry work with us into our personal lives as well. Don’t buy it? Just think about the last time you had another maddeningly frustrating conversation with your boss, then honked at too many people on your drive home.

Undoubtedly, the We-versus-They problem extends far beyond the workplace. You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes on Twitter to find narrow We’s jousting at broader They’s, often with colorful language and animated GIFs that reject anything that might unite them as a single We. When we continuously live in a state of aggressively (or passively) defending our We from an imagined They, we use up vital emotional, psychological, and physical energy that we might otherwise channel into more-constructive efforts — like registering to vote, volunteering for a worthy cause, or reading a book.

If we can begin to broaden the sense of We at work, maybe we can also expand our sense of We in the world, thereby healing at least some of the divisions that threaten to tear us apart.

If we want to achieve great things at work, to solve challenging and meaningful problems, and to live and work in constructive cultures — we must cultivate a broader sense of We.

But where the heck do we start?

How to create a bigger We

First, we have to recognize that, at work, silos exist for a reason. Just as cells and organs in our body specialize in certain functions, so do teams and departments within organizations. We also have to accept that a healthy tension between the growth engines and the controls within a company — between the accelerators and the brakes — will always exist. Legal, for example, will never be motivated by the same factors as Sales. This isn’t inherently bad or unhealthy, but simply specialization.

Second, we need to understand how silos are hurting or helping. Here, a structured diagnostic tool can help us examine two relevant outcomes:

  • Intra-team cooperation: how collaborative and supportive people are as they get work done in their own teams, i.e., how strong those silos are
  • Inter-team coordination: how much people coordinate across teams to get work done in a smooth and streamlined way, i.e., how permeable and connected those silos are

In my experience, silos in most organizations are strong and impermeable, i.e., intra-unit teamwork is pretty good, and inter-unit coordination is pretty crummy. Maybe this is a side effect of all of those years focused on “team-building,” or perhaps it comes from a deeply ingrained need to identify We and They. To which group do I belong? And which groups do I think will try to steal my cupcakes?

A shared sense of Purpose for a broader sense of We

Regardless of what’s driving this strong and impermeable sense of We, if we want a more constructive workplace culture, we next need to align these separate departments as a We. One helpful ingredient for cooking up a strong We is a shared sense of purpose. In our bodies, the cells and organs must align with a common purpose, which is, ideally, keeping us healthy and alive. In a company, employees need to understand the big goals we’re trying to achieve, the big vision we’re trying to attain, or the big mission we’re trying to fulfill — and then we all need to understand how our individual daily actions contribute to this big Why. In this way, the big Why creates a bigger We.

As we work to broaden the sense of We in our organizations, the goal isn’t to eliminate those reviled cylinders of excellence. The goal is to align them, connect them, and make them as permeable as possible so that they can work together to achieve the big Why. This results in a broader sense of We, one that encompasses, at least, the whole organization. For even more significant impact, that sense of We can be expanded to include suppliers, customers, shareholders, and communities by finding the big Why that matters to all and to which all contribute.

With a broader sense of We, we create a more constructive culture in which we can all contribute more, make a greater impact — and maybe even make the world a better place.


Editor’s note: NEW STUDY. One of the largest organizational culture studies in the world declares that a critical ingredient in a Constructive culture is purpose – an element covered in this blog post. Purpose is about your organization’s reason for being and the contributions or difference employees make in the world, the report finds. If you lead, collaborate, or consult on transforming workplace culture, download the report to guide your efforts.

Stop trying to transform culture – build on existing strengths

Stop trying to transform culture – build on existing strengths

During a recent keynote, Jeb Dasteel, Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Oracle Corporation, said something that gave me pause. “Don’t try to change the culture,” Dasteel urged the hundreds of change agents gathered in a hotel conference room. “Exploit it.”

Dasteel went on to explain that, while building a customer experience strategy inside Oracle — a company that had historically valued its intellectual property more than its customers, he chose to leverage the prevailing engineering mindset instead of trying to change the organizational culture, as so many of us might be tempted to do. “I couldn’t change the culture if I wanted to,” he said.

So he engaged the engineers and brilliant minds throughout Oracle to help design, implement, and systematize new behaviors that fit well with the existing culture.

The cultural grass is not always greener

This made me think: What might be possible if we stopped trying to transform organizational cultures, and instead, started leveraging them? Clients often tell me, “We need to transform our culture.” Some want to be more innovative, while others want to be more consistent. Some want to be more results driven, and others want to be more fun. The cultural grass, it seems, is always greener.  But what if we let the grass grow where it’s planted, and the change agents among us simply acted as landscapers — keeping the grass looking beautiful?

A strengths-based approach to culture change

Donald Clifton and Marcus Buckingham’s groundbreaking 2001 book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, introduced the concept of strengths-based development, advocating that, when trying to help people achieve their maximum potential, it was far more effective to focus on leveraging their strengths than on remedying their weaknesses.

The resulting StrengthsFinder approach begins by helping individuals identify the unique strengths they bring to the table, and then uses those strengths to help individuals maximize their contributions and achievements. Weaknesses don’t really come into the process at all.

A strengths-based approach to organizational culture is, in part, a matter of perspective. Instead of seeing the cultural glass as half empty, we see it as half full. Instead of carping on about everything that’s wrong with the organizational culture, we focus on everything that’s right. We should work with culture, instead of against it.

This is not, however, a matter of simply leaving well enough alone. If the current organizational culture isn’t getting the organization where it needs to go, intervention might be necessary. But where traditional culture change often focuses on stopping old practices and starting new ones, a strengths-based approach to managing culture would instead concentrate its efforts on figuring out how to better use — amplify, optimize, intensify — the culture’s most helpful existing attributes.

A framework for thinking about strengths-based culture assessment and change

One powerful framework that can help senior leaders and middle managers take a strengths-based approach to managing change is the Competing Values Framework developed by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn.

Competing ValuesThe Competing Values Framework embraces two key tensions that exist in organizations — between internal focus/integration and external focus/differentiation, and between the need for stability and the need for flexibility. The internal / external and stable / flexible structure has been used for other models. These two tensions, plotted as axes on a two-by-two grid, create four quadrants:

  • Adhocracy: With high external focus and a high degree of flexibility, this culture is ideally suited to innovation.
  • Market: With high external focus and a high degree of stability, this culture is ideally suited to competition.
  • Clan: With high internal focus and a high degree of flexibility, this culture is ideally suited to creating an inclusive, family-like environment.
  • Hierarchy: With high internal focus and a high degree of stability, this culture is ideally suited to controlled, predictable performance.

Exploit the culture’s strengths instead of trying to remedy its weaknesses

The Competing Values Framework provides a structure for organizations to understand where their current and preferred cultures fit, whether this is accomplished through an assessment or discussion. Leaders should focus on the areas of overlap between the current and preferred cultures in order for culture change to feel like evolution instead of revolution, like reformation instead of transformation. This will make the necessary changes less scary and decrease resistance.

For example, let’s say that your organization needs to shift generally from a predominantly clan-like culture, or predominately internal and flexible, to one that is more market-driven, or predominately external and flexible. Perhaps the organization currently defines success based on development of and investment in employees (a clan-like thing to do), but leadership has a no-nonsense, results-oriented focus (a market-driven thing to do). A strengths-based approach to culture change would use that leadership style to help pull the organization toward a definition of success based on winning market share.

A strengths-based approach to culture change for Ford and Jaguar*

When Ford Motor Company’s Premier Automobile Group decided to transform the Halewood, England, manufacturing site from a Ford Escort factory for economy cars into a Jaguar X 400 factory for luxury cars, leadership knew it that a pretty significant culture change would be necessary. Within three years, the company made changes to organizational structure, leadership and management styles, communication processes, the physical plant, and personnel to facilitate this change. Within seven years of beginning this transformation, the plant was winning accolades from J.D. Power, and outperforming its competitors. It’s no coincidence that this cultural change built on the plant’s existing strengths.

One of the key changes that Jaguar needed to make was the implementation of a lean manufacturing process. This approach to work requires front line workers to take responsibility for continuously improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their plant. The level of empowerment, proactivity, and flexibility required was a far cry from the hierarchical, passive, and stable work style to which the Halewood workers had become accustomed.

Highlight the cultural strength

In support of this shift, Halewood adopted a new set of aspirational values to guide workers’ behavior. These values included customer focus, accountability, respective, communication, teamwork, and flexibility. There was one additional value that would be familiar and comfortable for the Halewood workforce: quality.

Long a rallying cry of Ford Motor Company, quality would also become the familiar touchstone that Halewood employees could use as a North Star while sailing the otherwise-uncharted seas of cultural change. While making Ford Escorts, these employees would have been encouraged to keep their eyes on product quality, and that would be no different as they began making Jaguars. Focusing on quality would help workers know when they needed to make changes to work processes, would provide management with a yardstick against which to evaluate their decisions, and would ensure the organization continued to produce the best vehicles possible. Quality was the cultural strength that the Jaguar management team could leverage to make the cultural shift less disorienting and abrupt, to minimize resistance to the change, and to accelerate the factory’s evolution.

When culture change is necessary, discover your strengths

Clearly, cultural change — and even transformation — is sometimes necessary. If an organization isn’t getting the results it needs, it’s likely that it needs to change something about its leadership, management, strategy, or success criteria. But it’s far too facile — and ineffective — to take a deficit-based approach to culture change, pointing out all the flaws and shortcomings of the current culture. It’s much more powerful to first assess the culture’s strengths and, as Jeb Dasteel suggests, exploit them.

Do you agree it’s better to build on the strengths of a culture instead of focusing on “transforming” them? Why and do you have any examples or experiences to share? Please comment on social media.

*Addy, Nii Armah (2013). Leading Change in Management: A Case Study of Jaguar/Halewood. International Journal of ICT and Management, volume 1, issue 1. Retrieved from

Build a Culture Your Customers Will Love

Build a Culture Your Customers Will Love

Creating an exceptional customer experience has become a top priority for the world’s greatest organizations as more companies realize that an exceptional customer experience can be a true competitive advantage.  An exceptional customer experience requires an exceptional organizational culture.

How NOT to have a customer experience culture

I was pretty sure that it was time for my mortgage company to remove private mortgage insurance from my monthly obligations. I logged in to my account, wrote them a brief note with a request to remove the insurance, and asked what else they needed from me.  I received the following response:

Dear Customer,

This is to acknowledge your recent email regarding the Private Mortgage Insurance on your loan. Please be advised we need a signed written request sent by mail or fax. Your request will be reviewed to determine if all requirements to terminate Private Mortgage Insurance have been met. Upon completion of our review, you will receive a written notification in approximately 30 days advising you if we are able to accommodate your request…


E-mail Support Representative

Dear Customer? This is to acknowledge? Please be advised? Real humans don’t talk this!

Now, I’m not proud of this (ok, maybe a little), but I’ve always been a bit of a smart mouth, so I replied:

Dear E-Mail Support Representative:

Please accept my eternal gratitude for the crisp formal reply, crafted with machine-like precision. I will mail my request forthwith.  🙂



In response, I received a message from a different representative explaining, “We use templates to ensure consistency.” For some reason, “consistency” is more important to this company than the customer experience.

Delivering a customer experience culture the right way

What many organizations — including my mortgage company — haven’t yet realized is that improving the customer experience is more than a superficial improvement effort; it’s a cultural challenge. Sure, you can focus on improving customer service and making your website friendly, but as Edgar Schein noted in his Culture University interview, these are just the flowers and leaves on the surface of the lily pond. If you really want to improve the customer experience, you have to dig down to the roots.

To use another metaphor, to deliver a truly awesome customer experience, you have to travel all the way through the Culture Circle — through the goals, initiatives and actions, into the strategy and systems, and deep into the heart of the purpose and values. The visible elements of the culture — the “how we do things around here” — have to align with both the stated values and the unspoken assumptions that are the shadowy puppet masters of any organization. This is where my mortgage company went sideways.

To create a customer experience culture, many organizations focus on the knowledge, skills and abilities of front office employees. However, because culture exists at all levels of an organization, those that truly want to transform their cultures need to look beyond the front lines.

Do your customers love your culture?

To determine whether your company’s culture is one your customers can truly love, respond to the following items with “never,” “sometimes” or “always.”

  1. Leaders communicate that the customer is a top priority.
  2. Leaders focus corporate initiatives on customer impacts.
  3. Leaders actively and visibly support customer experience initiatives.
  4. Leadership actions and behaviors are consistent with the stated customer experience strategy.
  5. Managers translate customer experience priorities into employee priorities.
  6. Managers empower employees to make decisions in the best interests of the customer.
  7. Managers set goals, develop employees, and establish metrics with the customer experience in mind.
  8. Front-line employees have the tools and resources required to deliver an excellent customer experience.
  9. Front-line employees have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to deliver an excellent customer experience.
  10. Front-line employees understand the company’s brand promise.
  11. Front-line employees understand the actions and behaviors required to fulfill the brand promise.
  12. Front-line employees are recognized for their impacts on the customer experience.
  13. Front-line employees are recruited for customer-oriented attitudes.
  14. Front-line employees are involved in the creation of the customer experience strategy.
  15. Back-office employees understand their role in delivering an excellent customer experience.
  16. Back-office employees are recognized for their impacts on the customer experience.
  17. Back-office employees are involved in the creation of the customer experience strategy.
  18. Company processes and policies are designed with the customer experience in mind.
  19. The physical work environment reinforces and supports the customer experience strategy.
  20. Internal and external communications reinforce and support the customer experience strategy.
  21. Customer experience is a core element of the stated mission.
  22. Customer experience goals are an integral and explicitly stated component of the company strategy.
  23. Company values include the customer.
  24. Repeated actions or behaviors that undermine the customer experience strategy are examined openly.
  25. Official and unofficial policies or processes that undermine the customer experience strategy are examined openly.
  26. Unspoken rules or standards of conduct that undermine the customer experience strategy are examined openly.

Now score your little quiz. Give yourself two points for every “always,” one point for every “sometimes,” and a big old goose egg for every “never.” Add up those points to see how you’re doing:

46 – 52 points: Congratulations! You’ve aligned elements at all levels of your organization to create a truly customer-oriented culture. I’ll bet your customers love you!

31 – 46 points: Some of the elements of your culture are aligned to serve your customers, but some things are out of wack. Examine your “never” and “sometimes” responses for improvement ideas.

30 or fewer points: Something just isn’t right here. Take a close look at your organization to determine if the customer experience is truly important. If not, what kind of culture will best enable the organization to fulfill its mission and reach its goals?

Do you have experience with creating a customer experience culture?  Did you have to make changes at levels?  What worked for you?