Addressing Quiet Quitting Through Culture Change

Checking out the Quietly Quitting phenomenon in relation to Organizational Culture and the Three Levels of Motivation—a perspective by Dr. Robert A. Cooke

It seems that almost every decade or so, we hear a new expression for occupational stress, work alienation, and the serious loss of interest in one’s job. Some of us remember, a few decades ago, friends and colleagues “checking out”—not from the Hotel California per the Eagles’ hit but rather from their jobs and, in some cases, careers. Since then, the revolving door of terms for the partial or total loss of motivation has progressed from “burning out,” “going through the motions,” and “disengaging” to, now, “quietly quitting.”

The Washington Post notes that “quiet quitters aren’t walking away from their jobs. Instead they’re renouncing hustle culture and rejecting the idea of going above and beyond at work,” as proposed by TikTok user zaidleppelin in a July post that helped popularize the most recent buzzword. The Post article views “untangling employees’ identities from their jobs and leaving them with more time and energy to invest elsewhere” as a reason for this trend. Other articles and posts claim that, as we move on from the pandemic, quite a few people are quitting in this manner and redefining what they’re willing to do on the job.

The stream of interpretations of and opinions about quietly quitting has been endless, with new online articles and blogposts appearing almost every day. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist adding to this torrent given that it seems that the conversation could benefit from a review of (1) some of the original writings on the multiple levels of motivation and performance and (2) the results of recent analyses on the relationship between those levels and organizational culture.

Quietly Quitting and Models of Motivation and Performance

Chances are your organization’s leadership, human resources, and/or organization development teams are talking about and trying to address this latest challenge. If this is the case, one way for them to really understand and interpret quiet quitting is to consider the foundational research on motivation in the fields of organizational behavior and management. The intellectual roots of much of the current work is this arena—including ours—was provided by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn (of the University of Michigan) via their classic 1996 book The Social Psychology of Organizations.1 In Chapter 12 of their original book and Chapter 13 of the second edition, they delineated three levels of motivation and performance that continue to drive research and human resource strategies in this area. These levels, along with some contemporary examples of each, are shown in the table below.

Levels of Motivation & Performance

Katz and Kahn’s three levels of motivation and performance have influenced several important lines of organizational research and consulting, including that on commitment (including Meyer and Allen’s 1991 work on affective, continuance and normative commitment2), organizational citizenship behavior (initiated in 1983 by Dennis Organ and his colleagues3) and, more recently, the concept and measurement of engagement.4 For example, Aon’s (formerly Hewitt’s) basic level of engagement (stay) corresponds to Level 1 of Katz and Kahn’s framework above (intention to stay). Their higher levels (say and strive) correspond to Katz and Kahn’s Level 3 (e.g., recommending the organization and contributing more than what is required).

Employees who quietly quit basically continue to demonstrate motivation and performance at the lower but not the higher levels. This coping strategy is being written about as a new and important employee-level phenomenon—one driven by individual members’ values and needs, situational factors, and felt stress. It has been attributed mainly to things like feelings that one’s extra efforts are not rewarded, an orientation toward “work to live” rather than “live to work,” and what Katz and Kahn referred to as role stress (e.g., conflict between work and family lives, as recently experienced by many workers). Such factors have been cited, sometimes in new and different words, to explain why people are electing to stay with their employers (Level 1) and at least meet basic expectations of their roles (Level 2) but no longer go beyond those expectations (Level 3).

Organizational Culture and Quiet Quitting

Our data suggest that, yes, quietly quitting is an important (though not entirely new) employee-level phenomenon—one triggered by individual members’ states and traits. Additionally, as some articles and blogposts have suggested, factors at the organizational level also explain the propensity to quit in this manner. This is indicated by data we’ve collected over the past three years via the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI). Analyses confirm that the cultures and climates of many businesses, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations inadvertently elevate stress and lead employees to limit their contributions. However, our data also indicate that the cultures and climates of other organizations are more positive and, in contrast, effectively minimize stress and reinforce employees’ motivation to perform at all three levels.

This point is illustrated by the profiles below that show OCI and OEI results for some of the most Constructive and some of the least Constructive organizations recently surveyed. The composite culture profile to the left is for the subset of organizations with the most Constructive cultures. It portrays the strong emphasis these organizations place on Achievement (11), Self-Actualizing (12), Affiliative (2), and (especially) Humanistic and Encouraging (1) norms and behaviors. In contrast, the profile to the right depicts the relatively weak norms and expectations for these styles in the least Constructive organizations. The dominant expectations reported by their members instead are for Passive/Defensive behaviors [Approval (3), Conventional (4), Dependent (5), and Avoidance (6)] and Aggressive/Defensive behaviors [Oppositional (7), Power (8), Competitive (9), and Perfectionistic (10)]. (You can read about Human Synergistics’ Circumplex and the cultural styles here.)

Organizations: Strong vs Weak Constructive Cultures

The bar charts below the culture profiles indicate, first and foremost, that most members of these organizations are not quietly quitting. Overall, in organizations with strong Constructive cultures and even in those with weak Constructive cultures, people report a fair amount of Level 3 motivation and citizenship behavior. However, there are significant differences between these two sets of organizations with respect to the average scores for motivation and performance. While we did not directly measure quiet quitting, the surrogate OEI measures we used strongly suggest that it is more pervasive in organizations with weak Constructive and strong Defensive cultures. The data confirm that, in contrast, members of organizations with strong Constructive cultures are highly engaged and more motivated to: go above and beyond basic role requirements in carrying out their jobs; cooperate and coordinate activities with their teams; and help their organizations adapt to new opportunities and challenges.

Various behavioral norms explain the stronger Level 3 motivation in organizations with predominately Constructive cultures. For example, their employees report relatively strong expectations to:

  • set goals and plan how to attain them (Achievement norms),
  • personally grow and develop while taking on interesting projects (Self-Actualizing norms),
  • coach one another and provide feedback on their efforts and performance (Humanistic-Encouraging norms), and
  • interact in supportive ways that facilitate teamwork and collaboration (Affiliative norms).

Numerous studies show these norms promote involvement, participation, ownership, and intrinsic motivation which, in turn, precipitate citizenship behaviors and going the extra mile. Thus, organizations with strong Constructive cultures provide people with little reason to quietly quit or curtail their contributions.

In contrast, norms within Defensive organizations simply do not promote these states or behaviors—nor do they lead members to believe that their contributions will make a difference or translate into valued outcomes such as recognition. In fact, the failure of leaders to recognize extra effort and citizenship behavior has been cited by various writers as the main reason for quiet quitting. Per the OCI, the Competitive and Perfectionistic norms associated with Aggressive/Defensive (“hustle”) cultures implicitly require “working long, hard hours,” “outperforming others,” and “viewing work as more important than everything else.” These cultural norms, in turn, are associated with high levels of burnout, psychophysiological and physiological symptoms of strain, and employee turnover (indicative of low Level 1 motivation). While some members of Aggressive/Defensive organizations may go the extra mile, the pressures for doing so are external, potentially exploitive, and ultimately resisted.

“the failure of leaders to recognize extra effort and citizenship behavior has been cited by various writers as the main reason for quiet quitting.”

In organizations with Passive/Defensive cultures, norms such as Conventional and Avoidance lead employees to try to protect their personal security—e.g., “avoid being blamed for problems,” “lay low,” and “not get involved.” They are likely to report low Level 1 motivation (intending to leave rather than stay), minimal Level 2 motivation (trying to merely meet rather than exceed performance standards), and marginal Level 3 motivation (citizenship behaviors). Whether Aggressive or Passive, Defensive cultures provide many reasons for quitting—quietly or otherwise.

Stress, Satisfaction, and Motivation

The bar charts also show that the people working in the organizations with strong Constructive cultures experience lower stress and higher satisfaction than those working in the Defensive organizations. While we’ve seen such results hundreds of times, they are particularly noteworthy in the present context. That is, people who work for organizations with Constructive cultures report these positive outcomes even though they are expending extra time and energy going above and beyond the requirements of their roles (for example, helping the organization to adapt). This seems to contradict the writings on quiet quitting that frame it as a response to stress, strain, and burnout caused by expending extra time and energy on citizenship activities.

Thus, the higher levels of stress reported by people in the Defensive organizations may paradoxically be due to quiet quitting and retreating from citizenship activities. A recent fact checked post on HealthLine by Victoria Stokes notes that quiet quitting may have benefits in terms of setting boundaries between work versus nonwork activities and helping people step away from unrealistically high and toxic productivity. However, it can also:

  • interfere with feelings of self-fulfillment, purpose, meaningfulness, and satisfaction,
  • lead to feelings of guilt and depression, and
  • upset relationships with peers and superiors.

Per Stokes’ article, psychotherapist Tania Taylor advises that these negative outcomes can be averted or reduced by taking a positive approach to dealing with work overload challenges such as communicating effectively with superiors about work schedules and re-crafting one’s job to better fit priorities. Such approaches are far more feasible and productive in the context of a Constructive rather than a Defensive organizational culture.

Tackling the Problem via Culture Change

A recent post on, started off with the title “’They’re in a State of Fear’: CEOs are Worried About Quiet Quitting.” About two weeks later, a very different article appeared on Yahoo noting that U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says quiet quitting is “not a big topic of discussion in his chats with business leaders” and “I haven’t really heard about it from companies.” While it is unclear which headline more properly states the perspective of executives on quiet quitting, recent guidance from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office (in a research-based report) emphasizes the need for organizations to focus on workplace conditions and culture in relation to employees’ work-life balance, stress, well-being and, ultimately, productivity. Thus, it seems appropriate to briefly suggest an approach, one with an emphasis on culture, for addressing the current challenges leaders may be facing either with respect to quiet quitting or, more generally, the impact of work environments on employee motivation, health, and performance.

“recent guidance from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s office emphasizes the need for organizations to focus on workplace conditions and culture in relation to employees’ work-life balance, stress, well-being and, ultimately, productivity.”

Summarizing the discussion above, organizational culture is relevant to such outcomes in two important ways:

  • First, the nature of an organization’s culture determines the pervasiveness and severity with which motivational problems such as quietly quitting arise. As illustrated by the recent data from organizations with weak Constructive cultures, quietly quitting (and low Level 3 motivation) tends to be associated with more fundamental problems (low motivation at Levels 1 and 2 as well).
  • Second, the organization’s culture also influences the extent to which such problems are effectively dealt with and resolved.

While we can’t disentangle these two forces, the culture profiles and bar charts confirm that, over the past three years, quiet quitting (in terms of members declining to go above and beyond basic role requirements) has been much higher in organizations with Defensive versus Constructive cultures. Furthermore, moving forward, the likely rate of quitting (in the traditional sense) is also likely to be much higher in the Defensive organizations. This is based on the current members’ responses to the “intention to stay” (Level 1) survey items as well as previous research on Constructive versus Defensive cultures and data on employee turnover.

“While we can’t disentangle these two forces, the culture profiles and bar charts confirm that, over the past three years, quiet quitting has been much higher in organizations with Defensive versus Constructive cultures.”

Many of the organizations that successfully initiated culture change programs over the past few years did so with a focus on employee satisfaction, well-being, and retention. They began by using the OEI and OCI to measure the climate of their organizations (including the above and other outcomes), assessing their current cultural norms, and describing their ideal in terms of the behaviors that should be expected to maximize motivation and performance. This enabled leaders, members, and their consultants to compare their current culture to the ideal, identify culture gaps, and select the cultural norms on which to focus their organizational change efforts.

They then used the survey data along with qualitative approaches (e.g., focus groups) to develop practical strategies for strengthening norms and expectations for the desired Constructive styles and reduce those for the Defensive styles. With the collaboration of members at all levels, leaders then implemented changes and improvements in relevant systems and structures such as downward communication, employee involvement, and goal setting. Not coincidently, these initiatives run directly counter to quietly quitting and, in contrast, are designed to enrich jobs and increase their motivational potential.

Finally, change programs typically included coaching and development for leaders and teams to help them practice Constructive styles at the individual and group levels. These various development activities and changes in systems and structures were specifically designed to communicate, model, and reinforce the desired behavioral norms. They were also intended to support and enable members to contribute more effectively while coping with the work and nonwork challenges during and following the pandemic. The organizations that were most successful in changing their cultures were those that emphasized using and practicing Constructive styles when discussing, proposing, and implementing solutions to problems created by the pandemic and its aftermath.

Invitation to a Culture Conversation

If you would like to see how the Organizational Culture Inventory can assist your leadership team in addressing quiet quitting or other not-so-quiet quitting concerns, contact us here to get started.



More about the process used by organizations to change culture and, in the process, minimize and address motivation challenges, can be found here.

Webinars featuring leaders from Delicato Family Wines, ERDMAN, and other organizations effecting culture change during the pandemic can be found here.


1 Katz, Daniel and Kahn, Robert L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York: Wiley.

2 Meyer, John P. and Allen, Natalie J. (1991). A three-component conceptualization of organizational commitment. Human Resource Management Review. Vol. 1. Issue 1, 61-89.

3 Smith C. and Organ, D.W. and Near, J.P. (1983). Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature and antecedents. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 68, No 4, 653-663.

4 Oehler. K. and Adair, C. (2015). Say, Stay, or Strive? Unleash the Engagement Outcome You Need. Lincolnshire IL: Aon Hewitt.

Create Constructive Cultures and Impact the World

Over 30 years of research across thousands of organizations using the Organizational Culture Inventory® has shown positive relationships between Constructive cultural norms (that is, expectations for members to behave constructively in order to “fit in”) and motivation, engagement, teamwork, quality, external adaptability and, ultimately, profitability.

Constructive Cultures

Constructive cultures are those in which members are encouraged to interact with people and approach tasks in ways that will help them meet their higher-order satisfaction needs. The Constructive organizational culture “norms” measured by our validated culture survey include:

  • Achievement—Members are expected to set challenging goals, establish plans to reach those goals, and pursue them with enthusiasm.
  • Self-Actualizing—Members are expected to enjoy their work, develop themselves, and take on new and interesting activities.
  • Humanistic-Encouraging—Members are expected to be supportive, helpful, and open to influence in their dealings with one another.
  • Affiliative—Members are expected to be friendly, cooperative, and sensitive to the satisfaction of their workgroup.

Generally speaking, a Constructive organizational culture is created from the top and through a planned and concerted effort by leaders. Unfortunately, due to the absence of such efforts, the behavioral norms that emerge and prevail in most organizations are security-oriented and Defensive rather than Constructive:

  • Passive/Defensive Cultures: Members believe they must interact with people in self-protective ways that will not threaten their own security (with norms requiring Approval, Conventional, Dependent, and Avoidance behaviors).
  • Aggressive/Defensive Cultures: Members are expected or implicitly required to approach tasks in forceful ways to maintain their status and security (with norms requiring Oppositional, Power, Competitive, and Perfectionistic behaviors).

It is important to reiterate that Constructive cultural norms lead not only to member engagement and retention but also to organizational effectiveness and sustainability. In contrast, Passive/Defensive cultural norms inhibit motivation and performance and increase the vulnerability of organizations; Aggressive/Defensive norms, while possibly conveying the appearance of effectiveness, mainly produce volatility and inconsistent performance. And, across societies, the strength of Constructive culture norms are associated with World Competitiveness (as measured by IMD of Switzerland) and other important factors such as civil liberties and human rights (as measured by Freedom House). The Passive/ and Aggressive/Defensive culture styles are negatively related to such outcomes.

Constructive Culture Blog

The Constructive Culture blog is being launched to develop and disseminate ideas about how to effectively build and sustain Constructive organizational cultures. A global movement toward stronger Constructive culture norms in organizations will shift societal values in a positive direction and lead to even greater advancement across the world.

We hope you will enjoy and find useful the content at and engage in the dialogue on social media. The infographic below highlights some of the research demonstrating the important benefits of Constructive Organizational Cultures. Click here to download a PDF.


Editor’s note: the post for next week will be based on a discussion between Rob Cooke and Edgar Schein regarding the “common ground” of qualitative and quantitative approaches to culture development.

Culture and Hybrid Workplaces: Q&A follow-up

Thanks for joining us for our Culture and Hybrid Workplaces webinar on February 16, 2022. We appreciate your comments and feedback on this timely subject and are happy to answer some of your questions that were not addressed in the Q&A segment due to time constraints.

Question/Comment:  Thinking about young entrepreneur generations and if virtual work remains, what do you believe will be required for creating a culture in these new organizations?

Submitted by Edgar Gutierrez, Drive Consulting, Colombia

Cathleen: In looking at the Ideal culture profiles created by Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y upon entering the workforce (yes, HS has been around that long), they’re all similar in shape—that is, they’re predominantly Constructive. In short, people of all generations believe that a Constructive culture (one with expectations for achieving mutually set goals, emphasizing quality over quantity, giving positive rewards to others, and showing concern for people) should be expected to maximize effectiveness. And research and application demonstrate that Constructive cultures lead to employee engagement and performance. Therefore, organizations should focus on creating Constructive cultures by closing any gaps between their Ideal and Current culture profiles. Among the best ways for organizations to move towards Constructive cultures is through one of the 31 levers for cultural change–leadership. Organizations should continue to develop Constructive managers and leaders by providing them with insights into their behaviors and impact on others.

Like generations entering the workforce in years before them, Gen Z will thrive in Constructive cultures regardless of the workplace structure (e.g., remote, hybrid, onsite).

Rob: I agree with Cathleen’s suggestion and want to emphasize the importance of the 31 levers for cultural change measured by the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, our climate survey, which is often administered along with (or after) the culture survey.  One set of levers always required for creating a culture revolves around “articulation of mission”—and the specification and communication of not only mission but also values and philosophy will become even more important as organizations move toward virtual. Leaders will have to devote more time and effort to clearly specifying the organization’s mission and values (the ideal culture) and to operationalize them in terms of specific objectives and behaviors.

They will also have to more fully explain and communicate why certain strategies and decisions were selected (or rejected) to ensure consistency with the mission and preferred culture.  Just as in traditional organizations, leaders will have to communicate values and goals by role modelling, telling stories and providing examples, and rewarding the desired behaviors and accomplishments.  However, given that opportunities for doing so may be reduced in a hybrid workplace, they may also need to more frequently initiate discussions to explicitly review whether recent decisions, structural changes, new technologies, and the like are supporting or undermining the organization’s purpose and culture.

culture and hybrid workplaces

Question/Comment:  What ways can we increase personal connections/community outside of teams in a hybrid environment?  Anything that’s a virtual social ends up losing all attendees over time since it’s an extra thing people have to do instead of an impromptu in-person connection…so struggling with how to build social connections/community virtually.

Submitted by Lis Russo, Culture Strategy Lead, Gensler

Cathleen: I’ve found that by continuing (or starting up) regular meetings (e.g., monthly all hands, one-on-ones with managers, pop-up cross-functional teams, and functional team meetings), people have time to connect and catch up socially at the beginning and end of meetings. For more task-oriented organizations, leaders and managers should be mindful of encouraging this expectation and norm. In many industries (e.g., manufacturing), front-line workers want to see and talk to leadership. These interactions can be primarily social and take place in person or virtually. The most important thing is that they’re taking place in some way! In short, an Affiliative culture can be embedded in the everyday workplace. It just needs to be encouraged, role modeled, and expected by leadership.

Rob: When we started studying group processes and virtual teams many year ago, we found that the same type of team-building exercises used with face-to-face teams were relevant to “vteams.”  Fast forwarding a couple of decades, it still seems relevant to get teams together for some group process training (and discussions around interpersonal relations) designed around non-work problems and issues.

Also, when online group meetings involve a large number of attendees, it seems that a lot of time is lost at the beginning of such meetings while waiting for everyone to show-up.  I think it’s worth it to assign attendees to “rooms” during the first 5 minutes of such meetings to facilitate informal, social interaction within smaller groups.  This would be particularly appropriate if participants were going to work within these smaller or breakout teams later in the meeting.

Question/Comment:  How do you suggest aligning program team culture with the organizational culture. I’m on a large transformational project with over 60 people on the project team (combined internal and 3rd party consultants). We are adopting an agile approach which introduces a lot of new behavioral expectations that don’t align with the way the rest of the organization behaves. What’s the best way to help program team members adapt to these dynamics?
Thank you! I always love to hear Robert talk culture 🙂

Submitted by Darci R. Poole, Principal Consultant, Outside-In Consulting, Inc.

Rob: Hello Darci!  Thank you for joining our webinar, your kind note, and your question regarding Agile! 

From my perspective, some of the most interesting work on project teams is being carried out by the Agile 2 Academy. Agile 2® is “A second iteration of Agile that understands and seeks to address today’s challenges…” It is built around updated principles and six sets of seemingly distinct values (e.g., thoughtfulness versus prescription, individual empowerment versus good leadership).  Per your question, like Agile and other innovative ways of working, Agile 2 can be a challenge to implement in organizations with norms and expectations for more traditional or divergent behavioral styles.

I’ve been discussing the relationship between Agile 2 and culture with Cliff Berg, Managing Partner of the Agile 2 Academy.  We see important parallels between the Agile 2 values and principles (at the project level) and the Constructive norms and styles measured by the Organizational Culture Inventory® (at the organizational level).

We propose and are working to empirically test the hypothesis that Constructive (compared to Defensive) organizational cultures more effectively support the adoption and implementation of the Agile 2 principles, which include the range of positive leadership styles that are supported by a Constructive culture.  Organizations with strong Constructive cultures are expected to be more successful than those with Defensive cultures because (1) expectations within the former are more consistent with Agile 2 values and principles and (2) provide greater support for project team members to effectively engage in Agile ways.  Additionally, Constructive norms facilitate the implementation of Agile given that they make it easier for team members to switch between different behaviors within the project team as well as when interacting with external groups (ambidexterity).

We have launched a research project to demonstrate the link between Constructive organizational culture and Agile 2.  “We expect the results of this research will bring visibility to the importance of agility-promoting behaviors, workplace culture, and the attributes that distinguish the highest-performing organizations.  We are inviting organizations to support and participate in the study.

Question/Comment:  Are these whitepapers/studies [mentioned by Cathleen while reviewing Slide 11] available for us to view/read?

Rob: Thanks for asking.  The slide on “Culture and Outcomes” is one of our favorite “vintage” PowerPoints summarizing some of the original studies confirming the positive connection between Constructive cultures and organizational effectiveness and sustainability.  Relevant whitepapers, articles, presentations, and other resources for the first three topics “Across Organizations” (top half of the slide) include:

Culture and Profitability:
The original presentation is: Sanders, E.J. & Cooke, R.A.. Financial Returns from Organizational Culture Improvement: Translating “Soft” Changes into “Hard” Dollars. Presented at the ASTD Expo in Orlando, FL, June 6, 2005.

More recently, research reports and case studies on the relationship between cultural norms and outcomes such as profitability are reviewed in Chapter 1 (Why create a Constructive Culture?) of Creating Constructive Cultures by Janet L. Szumal with Robert A. Cooke.

Yet more recent case studies—on organizations such as Hanes, ERDMAN, Johnsonville Sausage—can be found on the “Resources” page of our website.

Readership Studies:
The research projects on readership, focusing on newspapers as they were adapting to digital platforms and new readers, were carried out by the Media Management Center of Northwestern University.  Newspapers with Constructive cultures were better able to adapt to change, to produce newspapers with high “readership scores,” and were more profitable than those with less Constructive cultures.  A summary of some of the findings is presented in a white paper by the two of the research directors.

All Eyes Forward by Vickey Williams presents case studies of 10 of the newspapers that participated in the larger study.

Best of the Best (Canada):
The cultures of some of the best organizations in Canada, including those receiving multiple best place to work awards, were studied using the Organizational Culture Inventory.  The results showed that their cultures were consistently more Constructive and less Defensive than the average organization.  The results are reported in The Best of the Best: The role of leadership and culture in creating Canada’s best organizations, available on our website.

Replies to Questions and Comments posted during our 50th Anniversary Webinar (Part 2)

This is the second installment of my two-part post with quick answers and more in-depth explanations in reply to questions and comments we received during or after our 50th Anniversary webinar on April 28th. The webinar focused on the state of the art of organizational culture today versus half a century ago—with an emphasis on the Organizational Culture Inventory®.

We’ve posted the video here in case you missed the webinar or would like to revisit all or parts of it. Part 1 of the Q&A is available here.

Question/Comment: Please pass on my comment to Dr. Cooke that I very much enjoyed his talk and would like to hear a follow up talk on how he came to choose aggressive passive and constructive as the basic dimensions for culture.  I concur with this but there are many other psychological and sociological dimensions that could’ve been the basis for the questionnaires that he used so it would be interesting to know why he selected the particular ones as the theoretical basis for organizational culture.

Submitted by: Ed Schein, USA

Brief Answer: Hello Ed!  Thanks very much for your question and for joining my anniversary webinar.  And, as I mentioned during my presentation, thanks for the invaluable books on culture and leadership—and for getting and keeping the fields of organizational behavior and development on the right track with respect to culture!

To get the conversation started: The statistical analyses we ran years ago to assess the reliability and validity of the Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) identified three dimensions underlying the twelve thinking and behavioral styles measured by the instrument.  We labelled these factors Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive for the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®), then under development, and later applied them to the Life Styles Inventory (LSI), which originally had been designed around four factors.

More Specifically: Clay Lafferty’s “clock-like” profile for the LSI was inspired by Timothy Leary’s interpersonal circle and based on a two-by-two matrix—reflecting Maslow’s higher-order satisfaction versus lower-order security needs (on the vertical axis) and concern for tasks versus people (on the horizontal axis).  Twelve inter-related personal styles were identified and placed around the clock, based on classic writings in the fields of management and psychology—including those by Henry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, Rensis Likert, Douglas McGregor and David McClelland).

Originally, the twelve styles were categorized into four personal orientations—Task/Satisfaction, People/Satisfaction, People/Security, and Task/Security.  However, our analyses showed that the first two converged into a single satisfaction category.  We posited this was the case because “Concerns for people and tasks may be compatible with each other and even mutually reinforcing when the individual seeks self-expression or satisfaction.”  More recently, I’ve proposed that people demonstrating the satisfaction-oriented styles display relatively great “balance”—not only in terms of the importance they place on themselves versus the organization but also on their concern for tasks versus people.

We devoted a lot of thought to selecting the best labels for the three orientations.  I personally wanted words that could also be used to describe organizational norms and group styles—and finally proposed to Clay that we go with Constructive, Defensive, and Aggressive for the Satisfaction, People/Security, and Task/Security orientations, respectively.  Clay liked this approach but felt that the labels should communicate that both the Task/Security as well as the People/Security styles were defensive.  Thus, we went with Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive.  We began using these designations almost immediately for the OCI (1984) and completed the conversion of the LSI to the new framework in 1986.

Finally, I agree that, per your note, “there are many other psychological and sociological dimensions that could’ve been” included in the LSI and/or the OCI.  Though I’ve occasionally thought about expanding our framework to encompass additional styles or dimensions, we’ve decided against doing so for a couple of reasons.  With respect to the LSI, our focus has always been on personal styles—which can change over time and are conducive to development—rather than personality characteristics, traits, or types—which are relatively intractable.  Thus, we’ve excluded factors such as Learning Approach (Hogan Personality Inventory), Thinking/Feeling (MBTI), and/or Neuroticism (Big Five).  We’ve kept the focus exclusively on behaviors that reflect (a) the various needs identified by Maslow, McClelland and others and (b) task versus people leadership orientations and concerns (Stogdill and Blake & Mouton) and group functions and roles (via Bales and (Benne & Sheats).  Like needs, task and people orientations can change over time and are conducive to growth and improvement as a result of not only personal development efforts but also organizational cultural change initiatives.

Question/Comment: Good afternoon.  Although culture is mentioned more nowadays and its importance is widely recognized, organizational culture changes are failing in almost 80% of the cases.  Why?

Submitted by: Marie Clouet, Germany

Brief Answer: Hello Marie–As I have said many times over the years, organizational culture itself is the greatest obstacle to culture change.  Ironically, organizations with the greatest need for culture change (i.e., those with Defensive cultures) may be not only the most likely to initiate change programs but also the most likely to fail.  This reality skews the overall success rate for the larger population of organizations in a negative direction. 

However, the success rate is higher for the subset of organizations whose leaders, consultants, and members actually do something to change the culture; combine qualitative and quantitative tools and approaches: persevere over time; and approach new priorities or disruptions (e.g., with respect to strategy, diversity, technology, etc.) as opportunities to apply, practice, and institutionalize Constructive thinking and behavioral styles.

More Specifically: Culture is an important topic of discussion across organizations—but relatively few make a meaningful and concerted effort to change it. Beyond talking about culture and maybe assessing it, too many organizations do little or nothing  to effect change.  While others get off to a better start with meaningful developmental activities and initiatives, leaders and members may get impatient or discouraged with the slow rate of improvement and give up too soon.  Their organizations therefore miss becoming one of the many that we’ve worked with that finally show change only after 18 months or two years!  Similarly, in yet other organizations, attention spans are limited, priorities shift, and people simply move on to the next pressing initiative—for example, agile, customer experience, diversity and inclusion, strategic planning—without the benefit of a more adaptive culture that would have rendered it easier to make progress on those fronts.  While the failure rates for such organizations are in fact quite high, the results for those that effectively make a long-term and concerted effort are significantly better.

Toward the end of my webinar, I focused on some of the factors that make culture change difficult (slide 15 at time 43:00) and the tools and feedback options that we have developed to overcome such impediments (slide 16).  Over the decades, we’ve had the opportunity to observe the change and development progress of organizations that have used these surveys, methods, and processes.  In many cases, we have longitudinal data documenting improvements over time with respect to leadership styles, impact, climate, and culture—sometimes over a period of 10 or 20 years.  For some organizations, we also have data on measures of effectiveness, ranging from employee satisfaction to hard measures of financial performance.  While systematic cross-sectional studies are needed, my observations suggest that the success rate is notably higher than 20% for these organizations.

Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why certain organizations have been able to successfully change their cultures, beyond their use of particular tools or standardized processes.  These reasons often have to do with the capabilities of and consultation provided by those guiding the organizational development journey.  While we have shared numerous case studies illustrating how consultants make things happen, I’ll share just one here.  It focuses on overcoming one of the threats to culture change that I alluded to above—that is, the tendency for leaders to get distracted, shift from one initiative to another, and in effect abandon the culture change agenda. 

The case focuses on a leadership team initiating a major strategic planning effort in the face of an increasingly turbulent business environment.  While this initiative could have easily lead to the premature death of the culture change journey they had previously launched, consultant Cathy Perme offered the team another, better idea—that is, using what they had learned about the organization’s culture to continue reshaping it while carrying out the strategy work.

In her blogpost on “Does Culture HAVE to eat strategy for Lunch?” Perme notes:

“Oftentimes, the way we do strategic planning simply reinforces the current culture. And if that culture is already defensive, we are probably fortifying those defenses instead of breaking them down. Today, as an integral part of my strategic planning with a client, I start with Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®). I need to determine the current culture, establish why it is that way, and identify levers for changing it.  From there I can design a strategic planning process that actually begins to change a client’s workplace culture while helping them plan their strategy.”

Here is the post explaining how Perme integrates strategic planning and culture change with clients—and, more generally, how new initiatives can by managed in a manner that continues and advances, rather than derails, culture change journeys.

Question/Comment: Given that it’s difficult to change cultural norms, is it not even more difficult to identify and change the tacit assumptions that underpin culture?

Submitted by: Management Consultant, Canada

Brief Answer: Yes, given my experiences with writing and using surveys, I agree that it is more difficult to measure and identify assumptions than norms.  I also believe that it is more difficult to change culture by focusing initially and directly on assumptions than by starting with feedback based on reliable and valid measures of norms (current culture), values (ideal culture), and the factors leading to and the outcomes resulting from the current culture (i.e., climate: perceptions and attitudes).  Qualitative approaches are then required to use, and expand on, that feedback to identify implicit assumptions.

More Specifically: Via surveys, we offer organizations (in particular, those embarking on a culture change journey) feedback that helps to surface assumptions, tacit and otherwise, and can ultimately lead to an “adjustment” in those assumptions. In the worst-case scenario, this feedback can include data demonstrating:

A disconnect between the current operating culture of the organization (per the OCI) and the culture deemed ideal for it (per the OCI-Ideal and stated values),

Organizational climate factors (e.g., perceptions of systems, structures, job design, and members’ skills) that are out-of-alignment with stated values and communicate and reinforce the suboptimal cultural norms,

Leadership styles and strategies that promote Defensive rather than Constructive behaviors on the part of subordinates and peers,

Outcomes at the individual, group, and organizational levels (e.g., motivation, teamwork, and perceived adaptability) that are below average due to the climate and culture.

Sometimes, this feedback merely confirms what members already know and believe.  A classic example is provided by organizations with aggressive and competitive cultural norms despite a constructive and cooperative ideal culture.  The problem is obvious to all concerned: Organizational reward systems that focus on individuals and pit members against one another lead to the culture and associated (and negative) outcomes around satisfaction, communication, and team spirit.  Similarly, Tom Kayers, author of Building Team Power and a Culture University blog post shares employee quotes that demonstrate how basic underlying assumptions drive behavior and culture, including:

“Even though the senior team screams that the customer is #1, we all know that revenue and profit numbers rule in this company because that is what determines our bonus.  So, make your numbers any way you can because highly bonused people get the promotions.”

In other cases, assumptions are more tacit (as described by Edgar Schein) or implicit (as described by Carol Weiss) in that they are not explicitly voiced and/or fully understood.  Qualitative approaches and discussions are needed to surface such assumptions and identify the causal factors leading to Defensive norms, culture gaps, and negative outcomes.  Thus, our Culture Quick-Start Program provides for facilitated sessions for groups to capture insights (stories, examples, etc.) about the current cultural norms, underlying beliefs about cause-effect relations, and the impact of culture and climate on outcomes and performance.  The narratives and specific language generated via this type of thorough qualitative assessment can be combined with quantitative data from the surveys.  Additionally, the survey data can be used as a resource by the groups to identify levers for changing norms and bringing the culture into alignment with the ideal.

Question/Comment: Thank you!  Self-Actualising is at the top of the Circumplex.  Security needs are at the bottom.  That is consistent with Maslow’s hierarchy and suggests there is an adult development context.  Has there been any work/research done on the connection with Dr. Robert Kegan’s work on growth at an individual and organisation level?  There appears to be a strong connection.

Submitted by: Karl Perry, New Zealand

Quick Answer:  Yes, as noted above, our Circumplex is very much consistent with, and influenced by, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  As leaders and others grow as a result of personal development programs or their own initiatives, their LSI profiles show shorter extensions at the bottom (on the Defensive styles) and longer extensions at the top (on the Constructive styles), paralleling movement up Maslow’s hierarchy.  And, yes, a good number of coaches and consultants accredited in the use of the LSI view individual growth (and movement from the security to the satisfaction styles) in terms of models of adult development—including Kegan’s Constructive Development theory.

More Specifically: The middle three stages of Kegan’s 5-stage model are the most relevant to individual development in organizations and roughly correspond to the Aggressive/Defensive, Passive/Defensive, and Constructive sets of styles assessed by the LSI. 

At Stage 2 (Kegan’s imperial mind and self-sovereign), the person’s own needs, wishes, and interests rule. Relationships are transactional as the individual views others merely as vehicles for getting what they want.  This stage corresponds to Aggressive/Defensive styles (particularly Power and Competitive) and individuals placing themselves “above” others. 

At Stage 3 (Kegan’s socialized and interpersonal self), the person’s thinking and behavior are influenced by others, the expectations they send, and societal norms.  Individuals are concerned with and take responsibility for how others view them and base their self-image on feedback and cues from others. This stage corresponds to the Passive/Defensive cluster of the LSI Circumplex.

When and if people reach State 4 (Kegan’s self-authoring mind), individuals have a true sense of identity, know what they stand for, and make choices for themselves. This stage (as well as Stage 5) corresponds to the Constructive styles, particularly Self-Actualization, on the Circumplex.

Coaches, psychologists, and consultants take a variety of different approaches to individual development and facilitating the movement of leaders, managers, and individual contributors from Defensive to Constructive styles. Most strategies involve (a) reducing the strength of specific styles on the left-hand or right-side at the bottom of the circle and (b) and strengthening corresponding Constructive task- or people-oriented styles, respectively, at the top.  Thus, for example, on the right side, a manager with strong Approval (Passive/Defensive) tendencies would be guided to practice and move toward Affiliative or possibly Humanistic (people-oriented Constructive) behaviors.  Alternatively, on the left side, a manager with strong Competitive tendencies would be guided to practice and move toward Achievement (task-oriented Constructive) behaviors.

Thus, in certain ways, individual development based on the LSI parallels upward movement through the middle stages of Kegan’s 5-stage model.  Similarly, administrations of the LSI over extended periods of time should show progression to Stages 4 and 5.  However, there is an important difference between the Circumplex and Kegan’s Development Theory with respect to the progression through the stages.  Kegan’ theory posits that movement from Stage 2 (Self-Sovereign) to Stage 3 (Socialized) is normal development and represents progress.  With the LSI, progress would be indicated instead by movement from either Aggressive/Defensive (Stage 2) or Passive/Defensive (Stage 3) directly to Constructive (Stage 4).

Question/Comment: Organizations have been shifting/shifted to remote work, automation, etc.  In significant ways due to Covid—we are operating in a new normal.  Are there any adjustments in the OCI instruments being considered to cater to new/future work environments that will impact work satisfaction, motivation/reward, culture and climate?

Submitted by: Sasha Dhoray, Trinidad and Tobago

Quick Answer: We’ve been working on various fronts to meet the needs of our clients during (and following) this unusual and demanding time.  New or derivative products that hopefully will be useful include the digital versions of our team-building simulations and the “Culture Mirror,” the latter designed to provide a snapshot of an organization’s interpersonal climate to check for its consistency with historical cultural norms.  The Culture Mirror is a derivative of our culture survey—the Organizational Culture Inventory® OCI®—and climate survey—Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI).

More Specifically:  We continue to work closely with high tech companies as well as more traditional organizations that have been facing all the new challenges over the past months on the technology, work-at-home, and other fronts.  While our materials are sufficiently broad to be relevant during these turbulent times, we nevertheless have created some new tools (or variants of or supplements to our proven products) that we hope will be of interest.  They include:

–The new, digital editions of the Subarctic Survival Situation™, often searched for online as the “plane crash survival game”, and the Project Planning Situation™.  While we were among the first to develop and offer online simulations more than 20 years ago, we have completely rebuilt the digital platform for these team development exercises—and will soon offer Desert Survival on this platform as well.  The digital versions of our simulations can be used for team building with face-to-face and remote groups and offer video enhancements, automated scoring, and new feedback options.  See our website for more information on the new online version of Subarctic as well as research on virtual teams carried out over the years with our online simulations and Group Styles Inventory™.

–The Culture Mirror, specifically developed for organizations facing technological and other challenges or disruptions over the past year or so.  As we note on our website, during times of crises and turbulence, it is critical to understand and capture whether the current interpersonal climate of an organization continues to mirror its culture.  We have found that, in some organizations, things have been “slipping” and moving in a Defensive direction; in other cases, organizations have done quite well in adapting to changes and the demands of the pandemic.  In fact, results for the latter on the Culture Mirror indicate that their interpersonal climates are more Constructive than their previous OCI profiles would suggest. Visit our website to read more about the Culture Mirror and its recent use by the Human Resources Certification Institute®.

Additionally, we are exploring the possibility of carrying out a research project to assess the way in which the climates, cultures, and subcultures of organizations have changed over the past months due to adjustments—such as those around employees working remotely—made in reaction to the pandemic.  This project would enable us to better understand and report on the magnitude and direction of the changes noted above (via the Culture Mirror) with the administration of the full versions of the Organizational Culture Inventory and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory on a research basis.

Many researchers and consultants have speculated on and written about the likelihood that the cultures of organizations have shifted as a result of changes during the pandemic.  For example, James Thomas at Strategy& notes: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had tremendous and swift effects on workplace culture.  The global lockdown and travel bans have upended assumptions about the nature of work and corporate interactions.“  Other writers, including Jenny Chatman and Francesca Gino, have posed questions about the impact of such factors on the strength (intensity) of cultures: “Will your culture take a hit because people can’t meet in person, making it harder to solidify their shared beliefs?  Will they be less able to use culture as a roadmap for making good decisions in a tumultuous time?”

Despite the importance of these statements and questions, there has been very little data-based research to address them in an evidence-based manner.  Thus, we’d like to touch base with our contacts within organizations who administered our organizational surveys prior to the onset of the pandemic.  We would select at least two work groups within each organization to complete the OCI and OEI once again.  The retest would enable us to estimate the impact of pandemic adjustments on organizational culture and climate, explore both the magnitude and direction of this impact, and identity organizational-level factors related to the degree and nature of the changes.  The participating organizations would be provided with invaluable feedback on the changes experienced within the units studied—positive and negative. 

In closing, we appreciate your kind words and feedback on the webinar as well as your questions and requests for additional information.  To those of you involved in organizational and leadership consulting for true culture change, thanks again for your collaboration, interest in our work, and use of the organizational climate and culture surveys, leadership assessments, and team-building exercises we’ve created over the past 50 years.  And, I extend a personal thanks to Kalani Iwi’ula, Cathleen Cooke, and Jessica Cooke for their contributions to the anniversary webinar and the Q&A blog posts as well as to John van Etten for encouraging me to write more about the history of Human Synergistics and our products.

Culture Then & Now: Replies to Questions and Comments posted during our 50th Anniversary Webinar (Part 1)

Thanks for joining us for our Anniversary webinar on April 28th, focusing on the state of the art of organizational culture today versus half a century ago—with an emphasis on the Organizational Culture Inventory®.  We tremendously appreciate all of your gracious comments and feedback on the webinar as well as your questions and requests for additional information.

This is the first installment of my two-part post with quick answers, additional explanations, and recommended resources in reply to five of the questions/comments we receive during (or after) the Webinar.  I will follow up with Part 2 with replies to another five questions.

The five questions and answers featured in this post focus on:  distinguishing between culture and climate, using the culture inventory with climate surveys, culture and safety & reliability, societal and organizational cultures, and the defensive misattribution of success to culture.

We’ve posted the video in case you missed the webinar or would like to revisit all or parts of it.  Thanks again for your collaboration and interest in the organizational assessments—and the leadership development and team building tools—that we have created over the past 50 years. 

Question/Comment:  Can you quickly define the difference between climate and culture?

Submitted by Sharon Richmond, USA

Quick answer:
Organizational Culture is about assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms. 
Organizational Climate is about perceptions and attitudes.

More specifically:
We view organizational culture as the underlying assumptions and values that can lead to norms which, in turn, guide the ways members interact, solve problems, and approach tasks.  Shared values (representing the “ideal culture”) are translated into norms (the actual or “current operating culture”) as leaders create an environment that communicates and reinforces these values.  They do this by selecting and putting into place systems and structures, designing jobs, and developing skills that reflect those values.  We view climate as members’ perceptions of these systems, jobs, skills and other evolving properties of the organization, as well as their attitudes toward them.

However, though leaders have the opportunity to create a climate that is based on their values and ideal culture, they often fail to do so.  In such cases, members’ perceptions of factors such as systems and structures (i.e., the climate) lead to normative beliefs and a day-to-day operating culture that are at variance with espoused values.  For example, despite values emphasizing teamwork, leaders may create appraisal and reward systems that focus on individual as opposed to group performance.  This can drive members to believe that they are implicitly required to compete rather than cooperate with one another—translating into an Aggressive as opposed to Constructive culture. 

Thus, culture and climate are distinct concepts, though closely related in practice.  While culture can lead to climate, the reverse is often the case—and this culminates in the need for change initiatives in many organizations to bring norms into alignment with values.

For further reading:
The above is from Meghan Oliver’s interview with me back in 2017.

Tim Kuppler and I also discuss the differences between these constructs in a blog post entitled: “Clarifying the Elusive Concepts of Culture and Climate”.

Question/Comment:  How is the OCI aligned (or not) with McKinsey’s Org Health Index?

Submitted by Sharon Richmond, USA

Quick answer:
Building on my answer to the question above, the Organizational Culture Inventory (measuring values and beliefs) is complementary to and can be used in conjunction with most climate surveys (measuring perceptions and attitudes).

More specifically:
I am very familiar with the early work of Matthew B. Miles (1965) on organizational health, that of Hoy and Feldman (1999) on their revised form of the Organizational Health Inventory, and various researchers focusing on the importance of a healthy climate for schools and other organizations.  Their pioneering work contributed significantly to the body of knowledge around the “survey feedback and problem solving” approach to organization development.  However, I am not as familiar with the more recent McKinsey survey on organizational heath.  Thus, in addressing your question, I’ll focus on the potential use of our OCI in conjunction with climate surveys in general.

As mentioned in my answer above, culture can lead to climate and, reciprocally, climate can lead to culture.  Thus, it can be very helpful to administer a climate survey along with the OCI.  The results together provide a basis for discussions on: the extent to which relatively “visible” aspects of the organization (e.g., systems and structures) are in alignment with cultural values; the current impact of culture and climate on outcomes; the climatic factors that can be used as levers to improve cultural norms; and the norms that may be interfering with the organization’s ability to make such changes.

Together, the data provided by culture and climate surveys, along with any data collected via more qualitative methods, provide a great base for planning and implementing organizational change.  Culture and climate surveys can be administered together or separately—either one shortly after the other or even in alternating years.  We typically convey to OCI clients that it is important for them to follow-up with our climate survey, the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory (OEI); however, it is even more important for our OEI clients to follow up with the culture survey.  That is because culture has a greater impact than climate on outcomes and its impact is more pervasive.

The omnipotence of culture makes it likely that a move toward Constructive norms will not only achieve the stated objectives of the data collection and development effort but will bring about other improvements as well.  Given the thinking and behavioral styles associated with such norms, ancillary outcomes can include greater diversity and inclusion, more ethical treatment of members and clients, and/or improved safety and reliability.

For further reading:
These connections between, and the complementarity of, culture and climate surveys are explained via our model of “How Culture Works.”

Question/Comment:  Can you share or point us toward articles or other references that focus on the use of the OCI in nuclear power plants?

Submitted by Joseph Drago, USA

Quick answer:
Speaking of safety and reliability, I mentioned during the webinar that (as part of a conference for nuclear engineers and plant managers) we administered the OCI Ideal and came up with a strongly Constructive composite profile.  The manuscript that is most relevant to this profile—one that uses not only quantitative (survey-based) but also qualitative (focus group) methods to identify the ideal—was released in 2004 by the Community of Practice Culture Validation Team of the Utility Service Alliance.  We’ve posted their paper, the Nuclear Plant Optimal Culture Report, on our web site for you to download.

More specifically:
The OCI has been used in many nuclear power plants and, more generally, in numerous reliability-oriented organizations throughout the world.  High reliability organizations are those that carry out complex and potentially hazardous tasks for extended periods without serious accidents or failures, the consequences of which would be catastrophic.  Leaders of such organizations were among the first to show an interest in the Organizational Culture Inventory and other culture surveys.  In fact, the earliest large-scale printing of the OCI was for the Eastern Region of the Federal Aviation Administration.  Shortly thereafter, safety consultants and engineers began using the culture survey at petroleum refineries, paper and pulp facilities, and major construction sites.  Concurrently, researchers administered it onboard the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, to personnel operating phased array radar systems, and to employees at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

For further reading:
With respect to nuclear facilities in particular, the Organizational Culture Inventory has been administered by researchers affiliated with Brookhaven National Laboratories—as part of a broader organizational survey—at various nuclear plants during a long-term research program.  For some history, see: 

Shurberg, Deborah and Haber, Sonja. Organizational Survey of the Los Alamos Site. Upton NY: Brookhaven National Laboratories, 1991.

Haber, S. D., & Shurberg, D. A. (1992). Organizational culture during the accident response process. In Knief, R. A. (Ed.), Topical meeting on risk management. La Grange Park IL: American Nuclear Society, pp. 152-156.

Haber, S. D., O’Brien, J. N., Metlay, D. S., & Crouch, D. A. (1991). Influence of organizational factors in performance reliability. (Overview and detailed methodological development, Office of Nuclear Regulator Research, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Upton NY: Brookhaven National Laboratory.

This line of research continues to date, leading to many studies and publications in Europe, including:

García-Herrero, Susana, Mariscal, M.A., Gutiérrez, J.M., Toca-Otero, Antonio (2013). Bayesian network analysis of safety culture and organizational culture in a nuclear power plant, Safety Science, Volume 53, 82-95.

Eulàlia Badia, Navajas, Joaquín and Losilla, Josep-Maria  (2020). Organizational Culture and Subcultures in the Spanish Nuclear Industry. Applied Science. Volume 10.

Additionally, organizational development projects around Constructive cultural change have been carried out in the United States by teams specializing in culture consulting and leadership assessment and development.  See, for example:

Brooks, Jesse L. (undated).  A Culture Within a Culture: The Impact of Organizational Culture on Nuclear Safety. Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network. Denver CO: Tosan/ephektiv

Marquardt, Martin (Ephektiv) & Bonenberger, David (PPL) (2015).  A Personal Touch to Safety Culture. Chicago: Human Synergistics Ultimate Culture Conference, video

Question/Comment:  When constructing the OCI did you think of using items from the surveys of Hofstede in IBM in the 70s?

Submitted by Laszlo Szemelyi, Hungary

Quick answer:
Though Hofstede’s book on Culture’s Consequences was published in 1980, I really didn’t get heavily into his work until after the OCI items were written.

More specifically:
However, once I “discovered” Hofstede’s research with IBM, I became fascinated with the likely relationship between the strength of his societal dimensions of culture and that of the twelve OCI cultural styles (as measured by both the Current and Ideal forms) at the organizational level across countries.  Janet Szumal and I included the results of one of my favorite empirical studies on this topic in our book, Creating Constructive Cultures.

The data from this study, which was initiated back in the 1990’s, showed that Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Collectivistic values at the societal level translated into strong preferences for both Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive cultures at the organizational level.  This was the case even though these values and the Defensive styles were negatively related to “world competitiveness” and other desirable outcomes—including human rights—across countries. In contrast, the Constructive styles were consistently viewed around the world as ideal for organizations, regardless of societal values.

Such findings suggested that organizational and culture change initiatives in certain countries (e.g., those with strong Power Distance and Collectivistic values) and in global organizations should emphasize strengthening Constructive styles to maximize “buy-in” for culture change at the outset.  Development programs could then focus on reducing Defensive styles after members gained an appreciation for their incompatibility with Constructive styles and negative impact on effectiveness at the individual and organizational levels.

Research, writings, and informal conversations suggested that the impact of successful OD interventions in such organizations had the potential to “spill over” into the local community and reduce, for example, Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance values. In turn, this transformation in values and norms could potentially improve the world competitiveness of, and human rights within, the countries involved.  This, in part, led to our mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time.®

For further reading:
Hofstede, Geert (1980).  Culture’s Consequences: International differences in work related values. London and Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Szumal, Janet L. and Cooke, Robert A. (2019). Creating Constructive Cultures: Leading people and organizations to effectively solve problems and achieve goals.  Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics International. (See pages 48-55)

Question/Comment:  This is so good a point about culture! Misattribution of success and Imputation of failure!

Submitted by Ivan Dmitrić, Serbia

Quick answer:
The misattribution of success remains a subtle yet powerful source of resistance to culture change and leadership development programs.  Leaders of organizations that are currently performing well sometimes misattribute performance (at least while it remains positive) to the culture they’ve created—which clearly, from their potentially biased vantage point, must be good and therefore does not require improvement!

More specifically:
Thanks very much for your interest in these erroneous attributions—which are often communicated by leaders with a high degree of assuredness!   About twenty years ago, we began writing about their propensity to “misattribute success” as follows:

The defensive misattribution of success.  Resources and demands, particularly when the former are substantial and the latter are minimal, can have a greater bearing than cultural norms on the short-term performance of an organization.  Organizations that enjoy strong franchises, munificent environments, extensive patents and copyrights, or massive financial resources are likely to perform quite adequately, at least in the short term and possibly even over the long term–if environmental pressures for innovation, adaptation, or greater flexibility remain minimal.

However, the indirect effects of resources and demands on outcomes are not always consistent with the direct effects, particularly when managers lose sight of important core values and/or the factors that led to the organization’s success in the first place.  Though an abundance of assets and a non-threatening environment can make it “easy” for an organization to perform effectively, these same factors provide members with slack resources and obliterate accountability and feedback on the true impact they are having on the organization.  Managers can “get away” with implementing ineffective systems, designing organizational silos and unwieldy hierarchical structures, introducing technologies that destroy motivation, and providing leadership based on questionable skills—and, in the process, creating an Aggressive and/or Passive organizational culture.” 

Thus, the legacy success of an organization can paradoxically promote a Defensive culture—or at least “enable” culture to trend in that direction.  The problem is further exasperated when leaders fail to recognize the deteriorating norms, mistakenly attribute performance to them, and refuse to entertain initiatives to “renew” and realign norms with long-term values.

For further reading:
The text above was written for our chapter on “Using the Organizational Culture Inventory to understand the operating cultures of organizations” (Cooke, Robert and Szumal, Janet (2000).  Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, 1st edition. Sage Publications).  Sage has kindly granted us permission to share the chapter via the Research and Publications section of our website.

Download the chapter to read a bit more about this phenomenon and another one as well, which we refer to as the “culture bypass” dynamic.

“Imputation” is something we’ve been noticing more recently and have not yet written about.  We’ll put writing an article or blogpost on imputation on our agenda (but if we fail to produce one, we promise not to blame it on the culture of our organization)!


Watch for Part 2 of the answers to the Webinar questions and comments to be posted on our Constructive Culture blog.

The Limitations of “Cultures for…” — and Recommendations for making them work for Diversity and Inclusion

The power of organizational culture for achieving outcomes of value continues to be increasingly understood and accepted across industries and throughout the world.  In the process, however, there has been growing tendency for leaders and consultants to try to create problem- or issue-specific cultures—that is, sets of values and norms narrowly directed toward and defined by the latest or most urgent organizational problems that need to be addressed and resolved.  Thus, we see organizations attempting to implement serial “cultures for…” or “cultures of…” focusing on such issues as: diversity, equity, and inclusion; compliance, risk, and ethics; innovation, change, and adaptation; wellness, well-being, and resilience; engagement and retention; safety and reliability; and service, quality, and customer experience.  In a way, leaders have reverted to concocting and advertising a parade of specialized cultures to signal to stockholders, employees and other stakeholders that they are doing something about attaining a specific objective or solving a serious problem. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that problem-specific cultures tend to be ephemeral and not particularly impactful–and, in certain situations, can even be counter-productive.  Leaders should focus instead on building a positive, efficacious, and system-wide organizational culture that they and members can rely on and mobilize to address the array of specific challenges—whether ongoing or the result of recent disruptions—they will inevitably face.

Organizational Culture

We define organizational culture as a system of shared values and beliefs that can lead to norms guiding the way in which members approach their work and solve problems.  Viewed and measured along dimensions such as values, beliefs and norms, the cultures of many organizations have been found to be rather intensive and pervasive.  That is, there is relatively strong agreement among members regarding what is valued and expected (intensity) and these shared beliefs permeate every corner and unit of the organization (pervasiveness).  The prevailing norms influence the behavior of members regardless of the nature of the problems they’re solving, the tasks they’re working on, or whom they’re working with.  It doesn’t really matter what specific objective, initiative, or program their organization happens to be prioritizing or focusing on at the moment. Regardless of whether it’s inclusion, quality, innovation, customer experience or safety, the overarching organizational culture—Constructive or Defensive—is going to prevail, drive behavior, and determine the outcome. 

The fact that the organizations already have a culture tends to complicate things, particularly if the latest culture of the month requires behaviors that are inconsistent with those prescribed by the real culture.  This collision has been observed in, for example, financial services organizations attempting to install “risk cultures.”  Compliance experts have concluded that “merely covering an organization with a veneer of ‘risk cultures’”  fails to address the underlying factors that lead members to take unsustainable risks.  Promoting the necessary orientation toward risk requires changes in the underlying organizational culture.

Similarly, we followed this phenomenon years ago in manufacturing organizations, observing and reading about the propensity of leaders and consultants to fabricate “safety cultures” to reduce accidents and injuries.  Though this superficially made sense, it’s difficult for new safety guidelines such as “immediately and fully report safety issues to superiors” to gain traction—given the hierarchical structure of many organizations and day-to-day operating cultures that render sending negative information upward untenable and at one’s own peril.  Safety consultant James “Skipper” Hendricks summed up the problem, noting that “We don’t need an add-on safety culture.  We must ensure an overall culture within the organization that embraces and manages safety the same way as the rest of the business.”

Diversity and Inclusion and Organizational Cultural Change

Though diversity programs have often been cited as failures, there hasn’t been the same general recognition that initiatives to create “inclusive cultures” tend to be at variance with the day-to-day operating cultures of organizations.  An important exception can be found in a Fortune commentary entitled “I’m a black tech CEO. Diversity shouldn’t be our end goal; ending the current corporate culture should.”  Travis Montaque notes “Companies create diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives with the mindset that diversity needs to be bolted on to the existing company culture.”  This approach “misses the mark” for many reasons, including those noted above.

In many cases, what organizations are really facing are underlying organizational cultural problems manifesting themselves as diversity and inclusion problems.  This is suggested by a pattern we have observed over the years with quantitative results generated via the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).  This pattern begins with OCI profiles showing cultures that are predominately Defensive rather than Constructive.  The prevailing norms support or implicitly require Oppositional, Power-oriented, Competitive and Perfectionistic (Aggressive/Defensive) as well as Approval-oriented, Conventional, Dependent and Avoidant (Passive/Defensive) behaviors.  More Constructive behaviors—such as Achievement-oriented, Self-Actualizing, Humanistic, and Affiliative—may be valued (as indicated by Ideal OCI results) but are neither expected nor encouraged on a day-to-day basis.  Aggressive/Defensive norms are particularly strong at higher levels of the hierarchy and, in reaction to those styles, Passive/Defensive norms are the strongest at lower levels.  Additionally, those who identify themselves as members of minority groups report even stronger norms for Defensive behaviors, particularly those on the Passive side, than do those in the majority.  (This trend generally is not observed in organizations with more Constructive cultures.)

Members of organizations showing this pattern report relatively low levels of satisfaction, motivation, inclusion and intentions to stay as measured by our climate survey, the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI).  They also experience and report higher levels of stress and role conflict (e.g., feeling like they don’t “fit in”) than do members of more Constructive organizations.  Not unexpectedly, their descriptions of organizational systems and structures causally related to, and reinforced by, cultural norms are less positive.  For example, they view performance appraisal as less fair and equitable and are less likely to report that members are treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their demographic backgrounds.

When this pattern characterizes the organization, the most expedient way to proceed to is to focus on culture change with the intention of changing behavioral norms, particularly those causally related to outcomes of importance—which, in this case, could include diversity and inclusion.  For organizations that have not yet tackled culture change, the first steps involve identifying an ideal culture, one that is viewed as effective across groups, to use as a target and benchmark against which to evaluate the current culture. 

After assessing the current culture and identifying gaps, the next step is to identify levers for changing the current culture and redirecting it toward the ideal.  The challenge is to identify improvements in systems, structures, job design, and members’ skills and qualities that are consistent with, and will promote, stronger norms and expectations for Constructive behaviors.  So, for example, gaps along the Humanistic/Encouraging could be due to the absence of mentoring programs that systematically signal the organization’s commitment to individual growth and development.  This shortcoming might not only be limiting the number of minorities prepared to take on leadership roles but, in many cases, is capping the strength of the “leadership bench” in general (given that no one in the organization is being mentored)!  Thus, a program that is inclusive of all members of all backgrounds is appropriate.

Whereas a wide variety of training and development programs can be used to effect cultural change, those that are prescriptive, relevant to all members, and implemented in a Constructive manner are likely to be most effective in promoting inclusion.  First, to the extent possible, members should be provided with examples of Constructive behaviors that promote task effectiveness as well as equity and inclusion.  Examples for the Achievement style would be “identify common goals that unify diverse groups” and “view differences as a source of ideas.”1  (Human Synergistics can provide you with such examples from the Culture for Diversity Inventory, based on the Circumplex.)  Second, as suggested by Roosevelt Thomas, author of Redefining Diversity,2 design programs and initiatives so that they are relevant and available to all members of the organization.  He made his point in a story about a course on “multicultural issues” he was offering to African Americans; others in the corporation understandably asked, “If the course is for high potential individuals, and we’re high potential, why can’t we attend as well?”  Finally, leaders and consultants should work as hard as possible to introduce and implement diversity and inclusion programs in the most Constructive way possible.  Programs implemented in Power-Oriented, Oppositional, and Conventional ways convey “blame and shame,” are destined to fail, and only reinforce Defensive cultures.3


1 Cooke, R.A. (2006). Culture for Diversity Inventory. Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics International.

2 Thomas, R.R. (1996). Redefining Diversity. New York NY: AMACOM.

3 Szumal, J.L & Cooke, R.A. (2019). Creating Constructive Cultures: Leading people and organizations to effectively solve problems and achieve goals. Human Synergistics: Human Synergistics International.

Clarifying the Elusive Concepts of Culture and Climate

Culture experts and enthusiasts recently gathered in San Francisco for the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. A theme of the day was that most leaders recognize culture as a critical factor for success, but it remains an elusive concept and has become an overused word. To kick off the conference, Tim Kuppler interviewed Rob Cooke, CEO of Human Synergistics, to explore culture along with some related constructs (like climate) that are sometimes confused or used interchangeably with it.  Some of Rob’s answers to Tim’s questions are summarized here.

Why is it important to have a language for and measure of culture?
They help give people a way to organize their thoughts around culture: In trying to measure culture, “I decided to focus on behavioral norms because, even though they are somewhat invisible, they are the more visible aspects of culture when you define it in terms of assumptions, beliefs, values and the like, says Rob. “Our survey items are behaviors, and we’re measuring the strength of expectations for those behaviors with the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).”

Organizational members’ responses to the OCI are displayed on the Circumplex, a circular graph with 12 cultural styles organized into three groups, or clusters, that provide organizations with a common and practical language for analyzing not only norms but also individual behaviors and group styles:

  • Constructive styles: These styles reflect a balance between task and people orientations as well as a balance between focusing on one’s own needs and those of the organization.
  • Passive/Defensive: These are security-oriented styles that drive members’ interactions with one another and “place a premium on people, but in a more self-protective way.”
  • Aggressive/Defensive: These styles emphasize an orientation toward tasks more than people and members are expected to approach their work in forceful ways to maintain their status and security.

Visit our video library to enhance your culture and leadership development learning.

Rob shared a story about an organization many of us have been reading about—one that has come under fire due to some culture-related issues. He reviewed the stated values and principles on the company’s website and found that they clearly corresponded to the Constructive styles. He then reviewed some of the norms and behaviors referenced in the press which, in contrast, clearly corresponded to the Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive styles:

  • Members were driven by Perfectionistic norms with explicit expectations to achieve unrealistic and potentially unattainable goals.
  • There was a strong Power orientation with people at the top distant from people at lower levels.
  • Oppositional behaviors were both expected and observed.
  • The Aggressive/Defensive behaviors at the top drove both Aggressive/Defensive and Passive/Defensive behaviors at lower levels.
  • There were strong norms and expectations for both Approval and Dependent behaviors, encouraging employees to accept questionable practices and never question their supervisors.
  • Similarly, Avoidant behaviors were implicitly required with employees “not getting involved” when things were going wrong.

A disconnect between values (the ideal culture) and norms (the current or actual culture) is all too common in organizations. First steps in effectively dealing with a culture-related problem or opportunity involve getting a clear picture of the culture through measurement and finding a common language like that offered by the OCI to guide changes throughout the organization.

You built on this framework of cultural norms and defined a framework called the How Culture Works model. What is it all about?
“It was a result of research conducted in the 80s and 90s,” Rob explains. “We would give leaders their Current culture results and administer an [OCI] Ideal survey with the same items, but asking about the extent behaviors should be expected to maximize long-term effectiveness and performance. In many cases, they would see their Ideal culture was quite different than the Current operating culture. We did research on the factors that drove the different cultural styles and what outcomes the styles led to, and we developed the How Culture Works model”:1

  • The Ideal Culture tends to be highly Constructive, with leaders and other members of organizations placing greater value on styles like Achievement and Humanistic than defensive styles, especially the Passive/Defensive styles, which they felt should be minimized.
  • In a perfect world, the Ideal Culture should drive the Current Culture, with members reporting strong norms for Constructive behaviors and relatively weak expectations and requirements for Passive/ and Aggressive/Defensive behaviors.
  • The Constructive norms, in turn, would translate into desired outcomes at the individual level (satisfaction, motivation, etc.), group level (good teamwork, etc.), and organization level (adaptability, quality, etc.).
  • Unfortunately, that is often not how culture really works. The norms and expectations are not driven by the mission, stated values, and what leaders say they want. “Day-to-day norms are instead driven by what people experience around them,” says Rob. That includes what people experience in terms of structures, systems, technology (especially social aspects like job design), and the skills and qualities of others including their managers. In many cases, these “levers for change” fail to communicate or support Constructive norms and expectations—instead, they drive Defensive behaviors, both Aggressive and Passive.


How does this model help you understand culture, climate, and the difference between the two?
According to Rob, “One of the problems we have with culture is that everything has become culture.” Much of what people are referring to when they think they are talking about culture is actually organizational climate – the shared perceptions and attitudes of members of the organization.

Climate factors, particularly shared perceptions, are Causal Factors that explain the previously mentioned disconnect between the preferred and actual culture of an organization.  Members perceive things like the structure of their organization (e.g., level of empowerment and employee involvement) and systems (e.g., human resource systems for performance appraisal) that lead them to infer what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis.  When these structures and systems are out of alignment with stated values, members come to believe that Defensive rather than Constructive styles are expected of them.

Thus, if members view decision-making structures as authoritarian, they will infer that Passive/Defensive behaviors are expected as opposed to the participative styles that are purportedly valued.  These norms translate into behaviors and, in turn, lead to low engagement and other negative outcomes.  These outcomes are attitudes which, like perceptions, are dimensions of organizational climate rather than culture.

Culture is about assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms. Climate is about perceptions and attitudes.

It’s interesting that Ideal cultures are consistently Constructive across organizations in different countries.  Why do they tend to differ along the Defensive styles?
“We are measuring the factors that enable members to solve problems individually and collectively [Constructive] or behaviors that detract from people’s ability to solve problems individually and collectively [Defensive],” says Rob. Across the world, in over 60 countries where we have measured Ideal cultures, people say the Constructive styles should be expected. This makes sense given that our research shows that they lead to effective problem solving, collaboration, getting work done, and meeting members’ needs for growth and development.

However, there are differences in how people in different countries view the Defensive styles, and these differences are driven by societal values. Societal values in terms of strong power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and collectivism2 have great predictive power in determining the shape of the Ideal culture profile. They lead to extensions (reflecting high value) along the Passive/ and Aggressive/Defensive styles.  Such extensions are moderate or low in countries where power distance and uncertainty avoidance are low and individualism is strong.

How are Constructive versus Defensive styles, the former which seem to be valued across the world, related to performance?
The Constructive styles are positively correlated with sustainability and other measures of organizational performance. Outcomes across the organization, team, and individual levels are positive. The Passive/Defensive styles are negatively correlated with organizational performance and adaptability. Outcomes for Aggressive/Defensive organizations are unpredictable and variable—sometimes they do great, and sometimes they have terrible results. Members of these organizations may do things to look good along one criterion, but it’s at the expense of another.

Rob shared how he’s observed a shift toward more Aggressive/Defensive cultural attributes in the banking industry [especially in large banks]. He used to use banks as an example to show that organizations in any particular industry were no more or less Aggressive/Defensive, Passive/Defensive, or Constructive than organizations in general. By 2005, however, something had changed: Banks were systematically becoming more aggressive. Larger banks were acquiring failing banks, and there was an increased reliance on aggressive selling. A “sales culture” was overtaking the larger organizational culture and leading to negative outcomes.

With the interest in culture growing, many organizations are targeting a certain type of culture. It might be a safety culture, an innovation culture, or some other area of focus. What’s the problem with specifically targeting a type of culture?
There are a couple issues with these problem-specific cultures. Let’s say the organization targets a safety culture: They may emphasize stopping production as part of that emphasis on safety, but doing so may run counter to the broader culture, which is about production at all costs. People in the safety arena are learning that and now want to build safety norms and procedures into the larger culture [which might have to be changed to properly support safety].

Another example is banks in which elements of a sales culture have emerged that are not consistent with the principles and values they espouse. The sales culture takes over because people respond to certain drivers, like reward systems, and the organization’s original values are lost.

In closing, Rob encouraged change leaders to always pay attention to what culture is and what it isn’t. The principles he shared helped establish some culture fundamentals to assist us in better mastering this often misunderstood and elusive topic.

Interested in learning more about culture, climate, and leadership? Attend our popular Culture Accreditation Workshop and take the first step toward becoming accredited in the OCI. You’ll also explore The Culture Journey Experience (updates pending, check back soon), our interactive and engaging approach to clarifying the complexities of culture, leadership, and their connection to performance improvement in an accelerated environment.

1 Cooke, R. A., & Szumal, J. L. (2000). Using the Organizational Culture Inventory to understand the operating cultures of organizations. In Ashkanasy, N. M., Wilderom, C. P. M., & Peterson, M. F. (Eds.), Handbook of organizational culture and climate. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
2 Geert Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related ValuesBeverly Hills CA: Sage Publications.

How Culture Really Works: Levers for Change

Given that organization development consultants are fundamentally agents of change, it’s no surprise that many of the questions they ask us about our culture and climate surveys focus on levers for change. Most recently, an attendee at the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference submitted a note card asking, in reference to the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) and my presentation on How Culture Really Works, “If you were to focus on one category of causal factors (structures, systems, etc.), which would you choose?”


Levers for Change

After giving considerable thought to that great question, I’ve reverted back to my initial reaction, which is: There really isn’t one category that is most consistently relevant, and therefore my choice would depend on the situation. First and foremost, working from the right side to the left side of the “How Culture Works” model, the most appropriate lever(s) for change would depend on why there’s an interest in changing culture in the first place. “In other words,” as Edgar Schein notes in his recent post on, “…before you start messing with culture, what is the ‘business problem’ that worries you and that you are trying to fix?” After identifying the problem or goal, I’d then like to consider the organization’s culture profile and gaps and specify the norms that should be targeted to resolve the problem or make progress toward the goal. And, finally, in discussions with members of the organization, we could identify the category of levers (as well as specific levers) on which to focus using survey data as input.

Selecting Levers

The levers associated with each of the four categories assessed by the OEI—Systems, Structures, Technology, and Skills/Qualities—were included in the survey as a result of research confirming their relation to the behavioral norms assessed by the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®). As such, consultants and internal change agents could simply focus on those levers along which their organization scored the lowest and be fairly confident about the relevance of their choices. However, they can refine and improve their choices by also considering the way in which the levers are differentially related to the three types of cultures.

We mention some of the levers that are strongly related to Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive cultures in the OCI Interpretation & Development Guide. In this post, I’ll focus on selected levers that show interesting, and sometimes different, patterns of relationships to the cultural styles. In discussing some of these observations, my rationale for not choosing one category of levers over the others should become clear.


Systems are the interrelated sets of procedures that organizations use to support their core activities and to solve problems. Formal and informal human resource management systems are among the most impactful with respect to culture. Reinforcement systems are among those measured by the OEI—specifically, the use of punishment and the use of reward. Our studies show that:

  • frequent use of reward and infrequent use of punishment lead to Constructive norms;
  • infrequent use of reward and frequent use of punishment lead to Passive/Defensive norms; and
  • frequent use of reward and frequent use of punishment lead to Aggressive/Defensive norms.

Thus, while it is generally useful to more regularly reward members for good work and minimize punishment, the challenges of decreasing Aggressive norms may be quite different than those associated with effecting changes in the other styles. Beyond cutting back on criticism, blame, and other punishments, it may be appropriate to decrease or replace certain types of rewards—such as those that lead to inappropriate risk taking, questionable behavior, internal competition, and feelings of punishment on the part of those who performed well but were not singled out as winners. More generally, in planning for change, it should not be assumed that rewards offset punishment; the interaction is more complex with Aggressive norms and warrants special consideration.


Structures—the ways in which people and roles are ordered and connected to create organization—are typically intended to reduce chaos and increase efficiency. While they generally succeed in doing so, the structures that emerge in organizations, particularly with respect to influence, lead to Passive rather than Constructive norms and reduce motivation and performance at the employee level.

The OEI measures structure in a number of different ways, including the distribution of influence and the total amount of influence (the latter reflecting the combined influence exercised by all members at different levels of the organization).1 Increasing employee influence, and therefore reducing the hierarchical distribution of influence, can decrease Passive norms and strengthen Constructive norms. However, our recent analyses confirm that increasing the total amount of influence can have an even greater positive impact on Constructive norms. Total influence can be increased, for example, as employees are given more control over work-related issues (and provided training to do so) and managers use their newly found time to deal with issues around coordination, adaptation, and the like.

Thus, reducing hierarchical control is a legitimate approach to curtailing Passive norms, but increasing the influence of both employees and managers more directly promotes Constructive norms and effectiveness.


When considering technology in the context of culture change, we’ve found that it’s most expedient to focus on socio-technical dimensions and effects—specifically job design. The OEI measures the design of jobs in terms of autonomy, skill variety, feedback, significance, and task identity.2 Though high levels of all five factors send strong cues for Constructive behaviors and run counter to Defensive norms, their effects vary both logically and empirically across the Circumplex styles.

In this excerpt, I share a brief description of the Circumplex styles from my presentation at the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. Join our Ultimate Culture Community to view my complete presentation.

For example, when trying to get the idea of job redesign accepted, it is fairly easy to “sell” the notion that increasing the amount of feedback that people get on how well they’re doing (just by carrying out their jobs) will decrease norms and implicit requirements for Dependent and Conventional behaviors. Similarly, it should be easy to demonstrate that changes designed to highlight the impact that jobs have (on either clients or co-workers) will strengthen norms for Humanistic-Encouraging behaviors.  Likewise, increasing the variety of skills required to carry out a job will in turn signal the need for personal growth and professional development (Self-Actualizing norms).

The ways in which the job design factors shape norms are so intuitive that they not only serve as easy-to-sell levers for change, but also as great tools for explaining the “culture disconnect” and the gaps between ideal and current culture profiles. People seem to understand that the immediate demands and requirements of jobs can easily overpower the apparently more positive values delineated in employee handbooks.


The talents, abilities, qualities, and styles exhibited by organizational members are climate factors that can affect performance directly as well as indirectly via their impact on culture. While culture reciprocally shapes the skills and styles of managers down the hierarchy, the impact of the leaders at the top is so powerful that Larry Senn has characterized organizations as “shadows of their leaders.”

Beyond leadership styles and strategies, the communication styles exhibited by members at all levels shape (and are shaped by) culture. Having studied both communication styles and systems theory, I became particularly interested in what we call “communication for learning” and wrote a number of items measuring it for the OEI. These items assess, for example, the extent to which members communicate in terms of the “big picture” and interdependencies or in terms of local issues and silos. The former can serve as levers for strengthening Constructive norms while the latter increase Defensive norms.

Thus, for example, in discussing mistakes, switching the focus from blaming to learning is one of the best levers for decreasing Aggressive/Defensive norms we measure. Doing so also strengthens Constructive norms, as does focusing on team (rather than individual) perspectives and the larger organization (rather than only on units). This suggests that organizations trying to squelch strong norms for Oppositional and Competitive styles develop members’ skills around communication for learning—even if their results along this lever were not among their worst. An investment in building these skills might meet with less resistance than other changes and potentially have a greater impact.

In Conclusion

One of the strengths of Human Synergistics’ approach to organizational change is that we provide an integrated array of measurement instruments that is consistent across levels—individual, group, and organizational. This advances change by enabling development at one level to be complemented, facilitated, and reinforced by development at other levels. Similarly, organizations also consist of multiple elements or components, and what goes in one component has implications for the others. In a sense, similar to the earliest models of organizations and change,3 the “How Culture Works” model views culture as a component interconnected with systems, structures, technologies, and skills/qualities as complementary components. Thus, if we are interested in changing culture, we’ll make better progress if we focus on the other components as well rather than just on culture alone or in conjunction with only one of the other components.

I welcome your thoughts and comments via the social media buttons below.

Interested in exploring a proven, integrated approach to organizational change? Attend our popular Culture Accreditation Workshop and take the first step toward becoming accredited in the OCI and OEI. You’ll also learn about The Culture Journey Experience (updates pending, check back soon), our interactive and engaging approach to clarifying the complexities of culture, leadership, and their connection to performance improvement in an accelerated environment.


1 Tannenbaum, A.S., & Cooke, R.A. (1974). Control and participation. Journal of Contemporary Business, 3, 35-46.

2 Oldham, G. R., & Hackman, J. R. (2010). Not what it was and not what it will be: The future of job design research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 463-479.

3 Leavitt, H.A. (1965). “Applied organizational change in industry: Structural, technological and humanistic approaches.” In March, J.G. (ed.), Handbook of organizations (pp. 1144-1170). Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

An Updated Perspective on Engagement and Performance: Culture as the Centerpiece

Employee engagement remains a hot topic among organizational leaders and consultants, and is often regarded as an upstream indicator of organizational performance. Gallup’s nationwide survey of employee engagement found the percentage of U.S. employees engaged in their jobs averaged 31.5% in May 2015—about the same as for the year 2014. This result is of concern because it’s assumed that engaged employees are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work” and are “strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization’s financial success, such as productivity, profitability and customer engagement”1.

With an estimated $720 million being spent annually on engagement2, why are these numbers so low? And why have some organizations found that, even when they have at least temporarily increased engagement, performance has not improved? More generally, what can leaders and consultants do to effect sustainable improvements in engagement and performance?

Engagement and Performance: The Traditional Perspective

When these types of questions arise, it’s useful to take a step back and clarify what we’re talking about. Over the past decade, it has generally been assumed that we can improve engagement by, for example, introducing changes in the way managers manage, clarifying job expectations, and improving communication. In turn, because certain studies have shown a correlation between engagement and performance indicators, it is assumed that an increase in engagement will lead to better performance.


The diagram above illustrates these relationships, highlighting the positive impact of increased engagement on outcomes such as customer engagement, productivity, and profitability. The “change initiatives” typically focus on the factors mentioned above (like management styles and communication) as well as other climate-type variables measured by many engagement surveys. While simple and intuitively appealing, interventions based on the relationships shown do not consistently produce fruitful results.

On Culture vs. Climate

The limitations of this approach have been noted by many consultants, including Diane Stuart, formerly an internal Organizational Performance Consultant with Advocate Health Care and now an independent consultant. Stuart was tasked with increasing and stabilizing engagement in a high-profile, semi-autonomous unit of her organization. Initial engagement data came from a regularly administered climate survey, which generated inconsistent results and pointed to the need for a deeper assessment.

As Stuart states in a recent case study: “The climate survey would show low engagement. There would be a flurry of activity which would improve results temporarily, but they would drop back down again. It was clear they had to work on the behavioral norms that were hindering the development of the strong relationships necessary for effective employee engagement.”

The “behavioral norms” referenced by Stuart are a central component of organizational culture rather than climate and have been shown in studies dating back to the turn of the century to have a stronger impact than climate on outcomes3.

Questioning Tradition

Beyond the need to add culture to the equation, the assumed relationship between engagement and performance embedded in the traditional perspective is questionable. Whereas certain studies indicate that engagement measures are positively correlated with measures of performance, the nature and direction of the relationship is debatable. In An Idiot’s Guide to Employee Engagement, Edward E. Lawler notes: “In many cases, however, the data are misinterpreted, misunderstood, and result in wasted time and money…. The results [of studies carried out over the decades] consistently showed low or no correlation between the two. In some cases, there was low correlation only because performing well made employees more satisfied, not because employees worked harder because they were satisfied.”

In other words, even though performance might be related to factors like satisfaction and engagement, the causal relationship could be the opposite of what is traditionally assumed. Performance can lead to engagement rather than vice versa because of the intrinsic rewards of doing a good job or the rewards provided by superiors (e.g., more interesting assignments, greater autonomy, recognition). Alternatively, correlations between engagement and performance might be observed because they are both influenced by a particular contextual factor—such as enriched jobs that offer variety as well as norms and expectations that encourage achievement. These alternative interpretations for widely reported research results on engagement suggest that the traditional perspective needs to be updated.

Changing Culture to Improve both Engagement and Performance

Referring again to the change initiative at Advocate, Stuart fundamentally added another element to the equation—behavioral norms—and reframed engagement and performance as outcomes of culture. The target for change became the culture of the unit:

Ineffective working relationships had both passive and aggressive components. In a blaming culture there is little ownership for individual contributions to problems. Teams that display passive and aggressive behavioral norms don’t easily recognize the way those habits and behaviors harm relationships within the team. Behaviors are so ingrained in deflection that members don’t see the impact they’re having on the group as a whole.

A series of change and development activities—focusing on leadership, group processes, communication, and feedback—were initiated, all designed to move the culture toward Constructive and productive norms and away from Defensive and counter-productive norms. (Click here for an interactive explanation of the Constructive and Defensive styles.) In a three-year period, the unit effected a significant shift in its culture leading to better communication, increased engagement, and important business outcomes.

For Real Results, Measure Culture

This and other case studies support the above-mentioned research findings that culture has a greater and more consistent impact on outcomes than does climate. Climate surveys can play a valuable role in identifying change initiatives, but those levers must be selected in consideration of their likelihood of accentuating and reinforcing organizational values and the type of operating culture that organizational members view as ideal. Levers for change must be selected also in consideration of the outcomes desired and valued by members. If both engagement and specific performance outcomes are goals, the change initiatives selected (whether focusing on systems, structures, job design, or people) should be those that have the potential of simultaneously improving the former as well as the latter.

As shown in the model below, the most reasonable way to proceed is to implement changes that simultaneously promote both engagement and performance rather than hoping that an improvement in one will lead to an improvement in the other.


Make Culture your Centerpiece

More generally, this updated perspective on engagement and performance suggests that culture should serve as the “centerpiece” when thinking about and planning activities for enhancing engagement. Doing so requires that organizational members identify the performance outcomes and goals (in addition to engagement) desired, visualize the type of culture that would enable the organization to reach those goals, and implement change initiatives supportive of those outcomes both directly and indirectly via culture.

Article also co-authored by Cheryl Boglarsky and Meghan Oliver

1 Adkins, Amy. (2015, June 9). U.S. Employee Engagement Flat in May. Gallup. Retrieved from

2 Kowske, Brenda. (2012, August 14). Employee Engagement: Market Review, Buyer’s Guide and Provider Profiles. Bersin & Associates. Retrieved from

3 Glisson, C. & James, L.R. (2002). The cross-level effects of culture and climate in human service teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23 (6) 767-794.