What Do People in Organizations Around the World Value Most?

Values are a key part of your organization’s culture; they affect the entire organization and its members. They can spill over to the community, influence what other organizations in your country do, and even change the world.

Whether you are leading an organization located in a single country or one that operates in multiple countries around the world, cultivating a productive organizational culture has never been more important. Envisioning the kind of culture that will maximize your organization’s efficiency and effectiveness is the first step to creating it. Given this, what is the ideal culture for your organization?

Global Ideal Culture Profile

We put this question about ideal culture to more than 39,000 people in 1,348 organizations in 55 different countries. Using the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) Ideal, we asked them to share their beliefs about the importance of 120 different behaviors to maximizing the productivity and long-term effectiveness of their organizations. Here’s what we found:

  • The behaviors that are most valued across countries are invariably Constructive (colored blue in the visual). They include both task-oriented behaviors such as “think ahead and plan” and “know the business” as well as people-oriented behaviors such as “cooperate with others” and “help others to grow and develop.”
  • At the other extreme, the behaviors least valued across countries are all Defensive—mostly Passive (colored green) with a few Aggressive (colored red).

specific behaviors
To get a clear picture of the responses to all 120 behaviors, we plotted the results from the 55 different countries onto our Circumplex. [If you are not already familiar with it, our interactive circumplex provides a quick explanation.] The resulting profile, which is shown below, provides a picture of what a Global Ideal Culture Profile looks like.

global ideal

As indicated by the length of the blue extensions on the Global Profile, people around the world strongly agree that the Constructive styles are most important—especially Self-Actualizing (Style 12, located at the top center of the circumplex) and Humanistic-Encouraging (Style 1, which is more people-oriented and located to the right of Style 12). Connecting this back to specific behaviors, people agree, for example, that “communicate ideas” (which is an aspect of the Self-Actualizing style) and “be a good listener” (Humanistic-Encouraging style) are highly important to their organizations’ productivity and effectiveness. Similarly, they agree that “know the business” (associated with the more task-oriented Achievement Style 11, to the left) and “cooperate with others” (part of Affiliative, Style 2) are critical. In fact, all the behaviors strongly valued across the countries studied are among those associated with Constructive cultures.

The relative length of the red extensions indicates that, across countries, the four Aggressive/Defensive styles are valued less than the Constructive styles. The moderately strong extension for Style 7 reflects the tendency for people to view certain Oppositional behaviors, such as “points out flaws,” as somewhat important. However, as shown in the earlier visual, other Oppositional behaviors such as “refuse to accept criticism” are not valued or are only slightly valued across the various countries. Similarly, though Competitive (Style 9) is somewhat extended in the Global Ideal Profile, certain behaviors, such as “compete rather than cooperate” generally are not valued. This is likely the case because they contradict and can suppress the Constructive behaviors that people value more.

The Passive/Defensive styles (green) have the weakest extensions on the Global Ideal Profile. As mentioned earlier, most of the specific behaviors identified as least important to maximizing productivity and effectiveness are those associated with Passive/Defensive cultures. For instance, “tell people different things to avoid conflict” is an aspect of Conventional cultures (Style 4), “follow orders…even when they’re wrong” is an example of Dependent (Style 5), and “not get involved” is an example of Avoidance (Style 6). Though these behaviors may be viewed as necessary in certain countries (e.g., to maintain one’s security in the organization), they are not viewed as ideal.

Ideal Profiles Around the World

Although people around the world tend to value Constructive behaviors the most, there are differences with respect to the value they place on Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive styles. This is reflected by the differences in the length of the extensions in the Ideal Culture Profiles from Organizations Around the World.[1]

ideal culture around the world

The differences between organizations in different countries in terms of the value placed on certain Defensive styles are partly due to differences in societal values. For example, Power Distance, is defined by Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, as the extent to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect an unequal distribution of power[2]. Countries in our data set that are relatively high in Power Distance include Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Poland (in the Eastern Europe cluster); the Philippines and India (Far East); and Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia (Latin America). The ideal profiles for our sample of organizations in these countries show relatively strong extensions in the Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive styles. This is in contrast to the modest extensions for the countries in our sample that are relatively low in Power Distance—Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland as well as Anglo countries such as New Zealand, Ireland, and England.

Individualism versus Collectivism is another societal value that is related to the differences in beliefs regarding the appropriateness of Defensive styles for organizations. Hofstede defines Individualism as the degree to which members of a society are loosely integrated and expected to look after themselves and their immediate family. He contrasts that with Collectivism, which is the degree to which members of a society are instead tightly integrated into strong, cohesive groups (from birth onward) that provide continued protection in exchange for unquestioned loyalty for a lifetime.[3] The most Collectivistic countries in our sample, relatively speaking, are Colombia, Peru, and Chile (in the Latin America cluster), and South Korea and China (Confucian Asia). These countries have relatively strong extensions along the Defensive styles relative to those that are more Individualistic. The least Collectivistic and most Individualistic countries in our sample are primarily Anglo and include the United States, Australia, England, and Canada.

The Values and Ideals of Organizations Can and Do Change

As people within organizations try new behaviors and approaches—or when they experience that old behaviors and approaches are no longer working as well as they once did—their beliefs change regarding what they and their organization should strive for in creating an effective culture. One illustration of this is the culture transformation of one of the fastest growing wine companies in the world, Delicato Family Wines based in the U.S. As leaders and other members learned more about their own culture and successfully implemented various culture change initiatives, their day-to-day norms (current culture) along with their beliefs about the behaviors most important to their business (ideal culture) shifted in a more Constructive and less Defensive direction. To hear more about the shift in Delicato’s Ideal Culture from Emily Ingram (EVP, HR), click on the clip below, which is from the webinar about their culture journey.

When the shared values within some organizations evolve and the effects are noticed, the values of other local organizations can also evolve.[4] One example are the slight shifts we’ve seen over the years in the Ideal profiles generated by organizations in the United States. For example, as U.S. organizations have learned more about the downsides of Aggressive/Defensive styles (and as the stories about their experiences have become more public and widespread), the value placed on those styles has decreased. This is evidenced by comparing our Historical Ideal (generated in 2001) to the composite ideal profile for the U.S. based on more recent data. The most noticeable differences between the two profiles are the decreases in the Aggressive/Defensive styles. However, there is also a slight decrease in the Constructive, Self-Actualizing style. In addition, there are slight increases on the people-oriented side—specifically in Affiliative (Constructive) as well as Conventional, and Dependent (Passive/Defensive).

u.s. ideal over time

Another good example is Romania—a country for which we have extensive data on organizational culture collected by our affiliate office, Human Synergistics Romania in Bucharest. As organizations from other countries opened operations in Romania, the values and beliefs of the people who worked in those organizations changed. And, over time, the values and beliefs of people who worked in other Romanian organizations also began to change. In our white paper, The Impact of Leaders and Managers in Different Countries (2014), Iuliana Stan, Managing Partner of Human Synergistics Romania, explains:

Before 1990, Romania had one of the most oppressive Communist governments and was almost completely isolated with little technology and no international trade—not even with other Communist countries. This was a result of the centrally imposed isolationism, especially during the 1980s. Decision making was highly centralized and only members of the small governing elite had the authority to participate.

In 1992, Microsoft became the first international company to start operating in Romania. By 1997, IBM, Oracle, P&G, and mobile-telecom operators also started operations here. These organizations introduced Romanians to international practices and education on leadership and management. Only in the last five years have local Romanian companies started becoming significant names in the international market. We can now say that there is no difference between an international company in Romania and certain domestic firms.

Shown below are composite Ideal Culture Profiles for Romanian organizations. On the left side is the 2008-2009 Ideal Profile which is based on responses to the OCI Ideal from 349 individuals in Romanian organizations. Next to it is the 2021-2022 Ideal Profile which is based on responses from 1,087 individuals in Romanian organizations. The profiles indicate a noticeable shift away from Aggressive/Defensive values, particularly Competitive (Style 9) and Power (Style 8), as well as decreases on the Passive/Defensive side in Dependent (Style 5), Approval (Style 3), and Conventional (Style 4). Oppositional (Style 7) stayed about the same and Avoidance (Style 6) slightly increased. Nevertheless, the already strong Constructive styles remained the same or grew even stronger as evidenced by the greater extension in the Humanistic-Encouraging style.

romania ideal over time
More generally, as illustrated by the above two examples, organizations in various countries seem to place somewhat less value on Aggressive/Defensive styles than was previously the case. Given the negative relationships between Aggressive/Defensive styles and desirable outcomes, we see the movement away from these styles as a positive trend.

Attention to Culture Matters

Whether an organization’s leaders choose nurture and take care of their culture or simply take it as a fait accompli, culture affects how the people within their organization interact, work together, approach tasks, solve, problems, and work to achieve goals. Because of this, culture influences everything: from an organization’s ability to adapt and innovate; to its efficiency and effectiveness in implementing strategies; to its success in attracting, engaging, and retaining talent. For many successful organizations, culture is a vital asset, supports their mission and strategy, and provides a distinct competitive advantage.[5]

However, the benefits of creating more effective organizational cultures don’t end there. As already mentioned, the culture of organizations can disseminate and affect the broader societies in which they operate. For example, we see significant relationships between less Defensive ideal cultures in organizations and greater prosperity, human development, freedoms, and investment in and attraction and retention of talent in their country relative to other countries. Whether this is the result of less Defensive organizational cultures, or that greater prosperity, freedom, human development, and talent lead organizations to have less Defensive cultures—or both—awareness of these relationships is important and reinforces the movement toward more Constructive and less Defensive organizational cultures. This movement begins with defining what is ideal for your organization.

defensive values

What is your organization’s ideal culture? Contact us to find out how you can use the OCI Ideal to get a picture of your organization’s ideal culture.


[1] Categorization of countries into societal clusters is based on that used in Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, and Vipin Gupta (Eds.), Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The Globe Study of 62 Societies (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004), p.190-191.

[2] Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), p.61.

[3] Ibid., p. 92.

[4] In our book, Creating Constructive Cultures we discuss the way in which increasingly more Constructive values and norms in an organization can “spill over” the boundaries of an organization—whether it is locally owned or part of a multinational company—and gradually lead to changes in values and norms within other organizations, the larger community, and even the country. See, for example, pages 55 and 195.

[5] For case study examples of this from around the globe as well as summary of the research on the relationships between the OCI styles and outcomes, see Creating Constructive Cultures.

How Your Teams Can Productively Work Together…Virtually

Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, the majority of people around the globe were already working remotely and interacting electronically part of the time. However, now that entire organizations are required to temporarily work from home, employers have become increasingly concerned about whether their teams will be able to solve problems effectively and achieve goals in a virtual environment. What can leaders and managers do to support team members to work together effectively?

Your Group’s Styles Matter

Constructive group styles are just as important to the performance and problem-solving effectiveness of virtual teams (in which members rely on electronic means to communicate) as they are to groups working face-to-face.1 A Constructive group style is descriptive of groups in which members:

  • interact and approach problems and activities in ways that enable them to fulfill both interpersonal and performance-related needs (such as needs for affiliation and achievement, respectively);
  • demonstrate a balanced concern for their own interests and those of the group (for example by delineating objectives for the group and pursuing them in ways that allow for individual growth and development); and
  • give appropriate attention to both task (including setting goals and focusing on objectives, openly exchanging preliminary thoughts and ideas) and maintenance issues (such as being friendly, mutually supportive, and providing thoughtful feedback).2

Early research on virtual problem-solving teams showed that they are more prone than face-to-face teams to approach tasks and interact in Defensive ways3 that make members feel insecure and psychologically unsafe.4 This is illustrated by the profile below, which shows the composite group styles of thirty-one virtual teams based on members’ responses to the Group Styles Inventory. This tendency, which we refer to as the electronic disintegration of interpersonal processes, is due partly to the lack of nonverbal cues and the negative aspects of deindividualization (such as feelings of isolation and perceived lacked of accountability) promoted by technology.

The Electronic Disintegration of Interpersonal Processes

electronic disintegration of the interpersonal process


If you’re not familiar with our Circumplex, the length of the blue extensions at the top of the profile (the 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock positions) represent the extent to which members reported Constructive styles were being demonstrated by their teams while working together on a particular problem or task. The heavier middle concentric circle in the profile shows the 50th percentile or median score for face-to-face teams. Compared to face-to-face teams, virtual teams tend to fall short (well below the 50th percentile) on Constructive interaction styles—including the Affiliative and Achievement styles. This is important because it indicates that virtual teams tend to struggle not only with the people-oriented aspects of Constructive interaction that are critical to psychological safety (like positive social connection, trust, and empathy), but also with the task-related aspects of working together effectively (such as staying focused on objectives, considering alternative perspectives).

As indicated by the length of the other extensions in the above profile, it’s easy for virtual teams to be plagued by some of the most counter-productive styles when it comes to courage, creativity, initiative, and adaptability. Keeping in mind that most virtual teams right now are trying to solve non-routine and important problems—and are doing this in an environment that is quickly changing with lots of uncertainty—teams that are Defensive in passive (green extensions) or aggressive ways (red extensions) are not going to be up to the challenge.

Strategies for Strengthening Constructive Group Styles

Regulate and Constructively redirect your behavior. It’s much easier to change behaviors while groups are still adapting to the new way of working, as opposed to waiting until counterproductive behavioral patterns become the norm and part of the status quo. You can start by paying attention to the impact of your own behaviors and decisions on those of other people. Passive/Defensive behaviors in groups (such as limiting one’s participation or offering few, if any, alternative ideas or perspectives) sometimes are reactions to Aggressive/Defensive behaviors by certain members—which can include sarcasim, blaming others for problems or mistakes, dominating the conversation, and interrupting or talking over other members when they are speaking. Passive/Defensive behaviors in groups typically are also promoted by the Passive/Defensive behaviors of others—which, in addition to the examples described earlier, can include saying or doing what’s popular and waiting for others to take charge or initiative. These kinds of styles can be more important in determining whether teams fail or soar than background, technical skills, and personality characteristics of the group’s members.5 Therefore, check in with group members to find out what’s working and what you can do differently to facilitate and support effective collaboration in this new environment.

Be seen. One of inherent downsides of working virtually is the loss of nonverbal cues that can give you and others a more accurate interpretation of what people are saying (or not saying) as well as provide unsolicited, in-the-moment feedback on the impact you and they are having on others. If you’re using a communication medium that offers video and you have a camera on your computer or smartphone, turn it on for meetings as well as one-on-ones—especially when it seems that letting people see you could make a positive difference. Invite people to also turn their cameras and explain why.

Establish a unified sense of purpose. Be clear in communicating what the group and your organization are trying to accomplish during this critical time. Define the priorities and most important problems for the group to address right now. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the current situation is temporary. Therefore your team should also be working toward the longer term, the organization’s overarching purpose, and what you collectively want things to look like when the current situation becomes history.

Keep your focus—and be willing to adjust. It’s easy to get sidetracked, particularly when things are constantly changing and stress is high. Address your peers’ and employees’ individual needs and be empathetic. At the same time, stay focused on the objectives and be willing to adjust them as new information becomes available so that objectives stay realistic and people stay motivated.

Stimulate thinking. Research shows that Passive/Defensive styles have an even more detrimental effect on the performance of virtual teams than they do on the performance of face-to-face teams, particularly when Constructive styles are weak.6 Although quickly coming to agreement without much discussion may feel more “comfortable,” encourage discussion of alternative perspectives and ways of looking at problems and ask quieter members to share their thoughts. This will ensure that your team comes up with good solutions that members are confident about and accept.

Highlight job significance. One of the challenges with working remotely is that people start communicating less with each other and, as a result, start losing sight of the ways in which their efforts make a difference for their team as well as their organization and its clients.7 Take the time to regularly stay in touch with your peers and employees and let them know how their efforts are helping you and how their work is making a positive difference in the work and lives of others.

Taking steps now to strengthen Constructive group styles will not only bolster the effectiveness of your teams while working virtually, but also continue to strengthen their effectiveness when members are once again able to work together face-to-face. If you’re ready to dive in and learn more about your teams Constructive styles using the Group Styles Inventory visit humansynergistics.com.


Human Synergistics is carrying out a new research project focusing on virtual teams and the relationship between group styles and outcomes such as solution effectiveness. To collect data for this study, we are making available a limited number of credits for the digital Group Styles Inventory prototype to HS Global Change Circle Accredited Consultants. Please contact us at info@humansynergistics.com if you are a GCC member and have virtual teams interested in completing the GSI and receiving feedback. This includes face-to-face teams that are transitioning to virtual operations.

1 Janet L. Szumal and Robert A. Cooke, Creating Constructive Cultures, pp. 27-31.

2 Based on Robert A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Group Styles Inventory.

3 See Richard E. Potter, Pierre A. Balthazard, and Robert A. Cooke, “Virtual team interaction: Assessment, consequences, and management,” and Pierre Balthazard, David Waldman, Jane Howell, and Leanne Atwater “Shared leaders and group interaction styles in problem-solving virtual teams.” Additional references are listed on the Human Synergistics website.

4 “Psychological safety” is a term coined by Amy C. Edmondson in “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” to refer to members’ shared belief that their team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking such as speaking up when you have a fresh idea or admitting when you’ve made a mistake or need help.

5 See, for example, Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team;” Pierre A. Balthazard, Richard E. Potter and John Warren “Expertise, Extraversion, and Group Interaction Styles As Performance Indicators of Virtual Teams;” and Sean Graber “Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others.” 

6 Richard E. Potter, Pierre A. Balthazard, and Robert A. Cooke, “Virtual team interaction: Assessment, consequences, and management,” pp. 135-136.

7 Janet L. Szumal and Robert A. Cooke, Creating Constructive Cultures, p. 258.

Is Your Culture Bleeding or Breeding Talent?

Finding and retaining talent remains an ongoing challenge for organizations as many find they lack the human capital necessary to drive innovation and future performance. According to the Theresa Agovino, workplace editor for the Society of Human Resource Management, roughly 1 in 3 workers will voluntarily leave this year, causing companies to employ “every tactic, from raising salaries to bolstering benefits to offering more training and education” in the hopes of attracting and keeping talent. But is that enough? We often see companies invest money and resources into attracting fresh talent and providing more training and education—including management and leadership development—when, in fact, new behaviors and different approaches are not supported by leaders nor by the organization’s culture.

Which begs the question, to what extent is your organization positioned to win the war for talent?

Organizations that Bleed Talent

Across industries, workplace culture consistently plays a key role in attracting, engaging, and retaining talent. In contrast, organizations with strong Defensive cultural norms are notorious for draining talent.

  • Passive/Defensive norms compel members to maintain their personal security and safety via self-protective interactions with people. Such norms include going along with what’s popular, maintaining the status quo, following orders (even if they are wrong), and avoiding responsibility and involvement.
  • Aggressive/Defensive norms drive members to look out for their own security and status via self-promoting and task-related activities. Example of such norms include criticizing, trying to dominate and control everything (and everyone), competing with others, and focusing on minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture and overall objectives.

Regardless of whether Defensive norms are passive, aggressive, or both, organizations with strong Defensive cultures tend to offer relatively few opportunities for education, development, involvement, and empowerment. When opportunities are offered, they’re generally not complimented—and often are contradicted—by the behaviors and decisions of the organization’s leaders and managers.

Studies show that organizations with strong Defensive cultures experience significantly more employee turnover than organizations with less Defensive cultures. In addition, those who work for organizations with Defensive cultures typically report higher levels of dissatisfaction and frustration, and lower motivation and well-being. Many are already looking or are planning to look elsewhere for a job and say that they would not recommend the organization to potential employees (nor would they recommend it to customers).

Cultures that Attract and Breed Talent

On the other hand, studies based on samples ranging from a few hundred to more than 60,000 respondents show that the strength of Constructive workplace norms are positively associated with intentions to stay and the likelihood of recommending the organizations to others as a good place to work.

A Constructive culture is one that encourages members to work to their full potential, take initiative, think independently, participate without taking over, and voice unique perspectives and concerns while working toward consensus. In organizations with strong Constructive cultures:

  • quality is valued over quantity
  • creativity and curiosity are fostered in place of conformity and indifference
  • collaboration and coordination are believed to lead to better results than competition and silos and
  • “doing good” is viewed as more important than “looking good” or “being good”

Organizations with strong Constructive norms not only do a better job of attracting and retaining talent than others, they also enjoy higher levels of employee motivation, satisfaction, and engagement as well as teamwork, interunit coordination, productivity, product and service quality, and performance. They empower their people, involve them in decision making, and invest in their education and development. As important, their leaders support and reinforce Constructive norms both directly and indirectly by their day-to-day behaviors and decisions.

There are numerous opportunities each day for a leader to strengthen Constructive cultural norms, many of which are particularly relevant to attracting and retaining talent. Examples that we’ve seen from leaders who have created more Constructive cultures within their own organizations, include:

Ask for feedback—and act on it. Check in with new employees as well as your longer-term talent to find out what they notice is working well—and what they feel is not working as effectively as it could. Leaders often miss the value of actively receiving feedback to identify unnecessary obstacles and make positive changes.

Check justifications. Another example revolves around enthusiastic new employees who questioned why things are done in a certain way being told “This is the way we’ve always done it,” without further discussion. The lesson for leaders is clear. Listen for when you or others justify doing something simply because it’s the way it’s always been done or because of some event that happened long ago. It’s possible the world has changed since your organization first started doing things that way—and such practices may no longer serve the organization as well as they did in the past.

Make better use of employee data. As another example, an organization struggling to keep talent routinely conducted exit interviews, yet the data from them were never used. Once their new Human Resource director started digging into the data, they discovered the problem was cultural and, more importantly, was one they could address. Most organizations don’t use the employee data that they collect nor are the conclusions from them even shared with leaders. As the leaders of this organization discovered, employee data can flag cultural issues that are driving out talent. The data can also guide leaders in making important changes that improve the organization’s effectiveness.

If your organization’s culture is Defensive, actions such as these are unlikely to be the modus operandi. Taking the lead to create a more Constructive culture through your behavior, decisions, and interactions will not only help to breed talent, it will also help your organization to be more effective overall.

For more ideas, read Creating Constructive Cultures, which highlights the change journeys of nine organizations in different industries and countries. Based on these examples and forty years of research, the book demonstrates how your leadership team can steer your organization’s culture in a more productive direction and avoid common pitfalls. You can purchase Creating Constructive Cultures directly from the Human Synergistics website or click here to download a sample chapter.

Share Something Meaningful with Your Top Leaders

Recently, I wrote my first book, Creating Constructive Cultures, with Dr. Robert A. Cooke. I am writing to share one of the most important insights from the book with the Constructive Culture blog audience. I also want to thank everyone who has supported us by contributing to, purchasing, and/or reviewing the book.

In Creating Constructive Cultures, we first journey through 40 years of research based on a few hundred to over 60,000 respondents. We then take a deep dive into the culture change experiences of top leaders of nine organizations in eight different countries to show why and how leaders create more effective organizational cultures. The book offers readers a practical, evidence-based approach along with specific tips on what does and does not work in creating more effective workplace cultures.

Among the most important and unique points of Creating Constructive Cultures is that leaders affect culture—and culture affects leaders.1 At least half of this is missing from just about every culture conversation. Culture affects leaders’ thinking, behavior, and decisions—including about change—in ways that they do not necessarily recognize when they are intentionally trying to redirect their organization’s culture. Alternatively, leaders may recognize culture’s influence on them, but they don’t believe they can influence the direction of their organization’s culture. As the examples in this book show, until leaders recognize the implications of both sides of that statement for their own leadership, their actions and inactions are likely to reflect and inadvertently perpetuate the counterproductive beliefs and behavioral norms that they hope to reduce or replace.

“Leaders affect culture—and culture affects leaders. At least half of this is missing from just about every culture conversation.”

Creating Constructive Cultures was specifically written for business owners, CEOs, and other C-suite executives, along with managing directors and general managers to give them confidence in their ability to make constructive changes. That said, other change agents both internal and external to the organization are equally likely to find the research, examples, and insights to be beneficial to the work they do.

Recently, Dr. Robert A. Cooke sat down and answered a few questions about the book. You can see him speak about what inspired us to write this book and his goal for change agents around the world in this video brief.

In addition to showing how culture can help or hinder attraction and retention of talent, adaptability, innovation, problem-solving, strategy implementation, and expansion and growth, Creating Constructive Cultures will give you and those who you share it with answers to critical questions such as:

  • What is the ideal culture for your organization?
  • What do toxic cultures look like—and what are the forces that enable them?
  • What is the biggest obstacle to change that most leaders miss?
  • What are the ways in which leaders purposefully or unknowingly impact culture? 
  • How can you and other leaders recognize—and overcome—the negative impact of culture on your own thinking and behavior to create desired changes and achieve goals?

With the unexpected opportunities and problems that leaders of all organizations face, there has never been a more critical time than now to start creating a more Constructive culture.

Thank you again to everyone who supported us through this journey! Creating Constructive Cultures is available in both eBook and softcover on Amazon and in softcover directly on the Human Synergistics website.

1 For more about this point, see our recent post in SmartBrief, “Are you leading the culture of your organization—or is your culture leading you?

The Real Culture Debate

Are the numerous and varying reactions to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s New York Times article on Amazon’s culture really just about Amazon and its culture? Or is the real debate about whether it is acceptable—or even desirable—to create, drive, and reinforce norms and expectations for Aggressive/Defensive behavior in organizations? Based on thousands of blog posts and comments, I believe it is the latter.

At the Root of Aggressive is Defensive

In organizations, Aggressive/Defensive cultures are bred from beliefs that promoting and protecting one’s own status and security are expected, required, or necessary in order to succeed or survive.1 In classic “Maslowian” terms, they are driven by basic needs for safety and esteem from others.2 In contrast, Achievement and other types of Constructive cultures are based on beliefs that intrinsic satisfaction, self-respect and working toward the fulfillment of one’s potential are expected and supported. Whereas basic needs and higher-order needs can operate in tandem—such as when individuals or groups are expected to look better and outperform their colleagues by accomplishing an objective that requires them to work toward their potential or vice versa—one set of needs typically takes priority over the other. Because norms and expectations for Aggressive/Defensive behaviors (including Competitive, Power, Perfectionistic, and Oppositional) work against those for Constructive behaviors (such as Achievement, Self-Actualizing, Humanistic-Encouraging, and Affiliative), the primary motivation—security versus satisfaction—determines whether the outcomes of the culture will be beneficial or costly to the organization, its members, its customers, and society.

“We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us3

Aggressive/Defensive behavior has its place for example, when one faces external threats and/or is under attack as in the recent thwarted terrorist attack in France. In such situations, we go into fight (“Aggressive/Defensive”) or flight (“Passive/Defensive”) mode to protect ourselves and survive. However, as Simon Sinek points out, reminiscent of Walt Kelley’s quote from over half a century earlier, the real danger facing organizations today comes more from inside rather than outside4.

And, at the Root of the Story is the Impact of Leaders on People and Culture

Setting Amazon aside, recognizing the real reasons why we engage in the behaviors and make the choices that we do, though a critical first step, only scratches the surface of what is at issue here. Most people (including those directly involved in the Amazon debate) recognize, at least to some degree, when they primarily are acting to protect or promote themselves rather than to fulfill their potential to achieve some greater good.

The belief that leaders and managers in all organizations should know about and be held accountable for the impact or influence they have on the behavior of the people around them and the culture and subcultures they create seems to be much more at the core of the recent articles, blog postings, and discussions about Amazon.

This is certainly not the first time we’ve heard stories about leaders and managers creating aggressive cultures and promoting aggressive behavior. For example, this continues to be discussed with respect to culture in the banking industry, which, ironically, has received less interest and attention from the general public in spite of the more widespread costs and implications incurred.

Despite the volume of postings on blogs and the like, with each story and with each “new” case, we continue to come back to the same question: Is it desirable or even acceptable to create Aggressive/Defensive organizational cultures?

And the Survey Says…

Our data from organizational leaders around the world show that across as well as within countries, leaders believe in the value and importance of promoting and creating primarily Constructive cultures and, to varying degrees, the value and importance of secondarily promoting Aggressive/Defensive behaviors and cultures.

However, our data also show that, on average, leaders and managers at all levels of organizations and in all of the countries in which our surveys have been used promote less Constructive and more Defensive (including Passive as well as Aggressive) behaviors and cultures than they believe and say are ideal for their organizations to prosper over the long term.

“On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B”

This classic 1975 article by Steven Kerr, when we hire, reward, and promote leaders and managers exclusively for their attainment of short-term results without regard to their impact on people and culture, it is not surprising that at least some of them will choose to personally engage in Aggressive/Defensive behaviors and promote Aggressive/Defensive cultures.

Why not, given that defensive behaviors and cultures are easier to enact and promote than Constructive ones? And, even though Aggressive/Defensive cultures are associated with volatile or uneven financial performance, they can produce short-term success as well as the aura of higher performance. For some leaders and managers, this makes it worth the risk, particularly if they don’t plan on staying with the organization for very long.

What Do We Really Hope For?

Organizations that measure and monitor their cultures and hire, reward, develop, and promote leaders and managers who reinforce Constructive behaviors and create cultures that are consistent with their missions and their values attain great results. These organizations are also viewed by their members as great places to work.

To what extent should you and others consider culture when:

  • in the job market, making decisions about with which organizations to seek employment?
  • investing as an individual or corporation, which organizations to invest in, merge with, or purchase?
  • making purchases, which organizations to patronize as a customer?

To what extent does culture factor into your decisions—and to what extent should culture factor into your decisions? How much does culture really matter to you?


1Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics International.

2Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

3Kelly, W. (1987). Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Simon & Schuster.

4Sinek, S. (2012). Leaders eat last. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.

“Bad Behavior” at the Top?

How a limited understanding of leadership and its impact derails our leadership

Bad behavior at the top is apparently “in.” The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic, just to name a few, have all recently published articles highlighting the short-term, self-serving, aggressive behavior of esteemed as well as not so widely-respected top leaders1. Is something fundamentally or inherently wrong, deficient, or even derelict about the people who hold top positions in certain organizations? Or is the ever spreading “leadership crisis” really just a function of how leaders are selected, developed and rewarded? We take the position that it is the latter.

The systems that many organizations use to select, develop, and reward top leaders all are based on their behavior and their business accomplishments. At the same time, these systems overlook the essence of leadership and leaders’ impact on people and the culture of their organizations, which is why they inadvertently promote and reinforce behaviors later deemed as “bad” rather than those that enable organizations to be resilient and effective over the long-term.

Leadership Defined

Back in the mid 1990’s when “Leadership/Impact®” was first introduced the two words were rarely used together. Now when you do a search, a slew of books, articles, and other works that include these words are identified. Unfortunately, however, both leadership and impact are words that have different meanings to different people and, as a result, most people think about, discuss, and approach the impact of leaders in a rather limiting way that produces inadequate and often unexpected results.

After months of reviewing different definitions of leadership in books and articles and on the Internet, I recently found one that specifies the necessary elements that together sufficiently define and distinguish leadership (thank you Kevin Kruse!):

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

As Kevin points out, the distinguishing features of leadership are:

  • It is about influence toward achieving a specific goal or intended outcome, rather than just any kind of influence.
  • It stems from “social influence” rather than authority or power.
  • It requires “others,” which includes but is not limited to direct reports, peers, higher level managers.
  • The traits, attributes, behaviors, styles, position, and job title of the individual are not part of the definition of leadership.

The Impact of Leaders

When people use the word “impact” with leader or leadership, they most typically describe the individual’s influence on the organization’s business performance or discuss the personal characteristics of the leader. In fact, when I casually ask people to describe the impact of someone’s leadership, they mention the leader’s traits, behaviors, styles, accomplishments and everything except the leader’s social influence on the people inside the organization toward the achievement of its mission, purpose, and goals.

As shown in the diagram below, whereas the behavior of leaders and their leadership approaches can and do impact business performance, this happens both directly as well as indirectly through the impact that leaders have on the behavior and performance of other people within the organization and its culture.


Why the Impact of Leadership is More Important than Ever

Creating an environment and culture within which people effectively work independently and together to achieve the organization’s purpose and goals is both more challenging and critical than ever before as leaders deal with: ever-changing technology; increasing competition and customer demands and expectations; threats to cybersecurity and internal operations; attracting, engaging, and retaining scarce talent; government regulation, deregulation, economic and political changes; as well as mergers, demergers, and structural changes.

Because their indirect impact on performance via others is rarely addressed, most leaders unknowingly do things in ways that work against what they are trying to achieve by encouraging and driving the people around them to behave more defensively and therefore less productively than they intend.  Because they don’t realize their true impact on the performance-related  behaviors of others, leaders miss the opportunity to redirect their approaches to maximize the contributions of members and the long-term effectiveness of their organizations.

Leading with the End in Mind

Leaders have a tremendous influence on the culture of their organizations and can encourage people to behave in a number of different ways to achieve a number of different goals. For instance, an individual’s or group’s leadership can influence other people to behave in ways that attain the organization’s immediate goals at the expense of achieving its mission and purpose. Thus, we have examples like the banking industry during the mid 2000’s and Enron, where it was assumed, based on short-term financial performance, that the leadership was promoting effective organizational cultures that should be modeled by other leaders and organizations. It wasn’t until the longer-term effects of those behaviors took hold (which actually did not take very long), that people—including investors, Wall Street journalists, and even academics—realized that they were making overly-optimistic assumptions about the leadership’s impact on the organizations’ members and cultures based exclusively on the immediate results achieved. These incorrect assumptions were reached without any real knowledge of the kinds of self-serving, defensive behaviors that were actually promoted and reinforced by leadership in these organizations. The cultures that they promoted  certainly had tangible, bottom-line results: the achievement of the largest bankruptcies in history up to that time, the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars, and prison time for top executives, just to name a few.

On the other hand, there are examples such as Tasty Catering in Chicago, Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing in Australia, and SaskCentral in Canada where the leaders intentionally changed their impact on people to behave more constructively and communicate and coordinate with one another in ways that achieve immediate goals while simultaneously achieving the organization’s long-term mission and purpose. The cultures that these leaders promote also have tangible, bottom line results—all of these organizations are thriving along multiple criteria including financial performance; attraction and retention of top talent; and sustainability.

Interestingly, in both the former defensive and latter constructive examples, the leaders motivated the people within their organizations to be agile, innovative, engaged, purposeful, and growth-oriented. The difference is to what end—permanent ruin versus sustained excellence.

Increasing Effectiveness through Leadership Impact

Impact on people and culture is the essence of what leadership is about and is the most enduring aspect of one’s leadership legacy. The impact of leaders on people and culture is just as real and measurable as the leader’s personal characteristics and business performance. If we want our organizations to attain sustained success over the long-term rather than just look good in the short-term, leaders must understand and actively steer their impact on people and culture.

Do your organization’s leaders recognize their impact on people and culture?

We invite you to engage with us on this topic via LinkedIn and Twitter.


1 Also see: