There Is a “Right” Culture!

When I started my work with organizational culture, I thought there was no “right” or “wrong” culture for organizations. Rather, the right culture was something an organization chooses depending on its situation. Fast forward to today and I must say I’m solidly in the camp that believes there is a right culture. In fact, it’s entirely possible for an organization and its leaders to uncover it and work to achieve it.

My eureka moment on right versus wrong came at a presentation four years ago during the annual Association for Change Management Professionals (ACMP) conference. And it was further amplified as I did the research for this article.

By right versus wrong, I’m not talking about “current” and “ideal cultures.” Aspirations to achieve the ideal have nearly always been the goal. Instead, I’m focusing here on lenses—the lenses leaders and consultants need to look through to see an organization’s culture.

Realizing there are multiple lenses out there and that leaders can see differently through different lenses was the eureka moment for me. Eureka because I had the sense that the lenses I had been using over the years weren’t quite powerful enough. Eureka because I discovered an alternative lens—the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) from Human Synergistics – that allowed me to get a crystal-clear view into an organization’s culture.

In turn, with the crystal-clear view, I could see how the culture of an organization—any type of organization—could become more Constructive (right and effective) and less Defensive (wrong and ineffective). And I could also see why. In enormous detail.

My Intro to Situational Models of Culture

Before the time of my eureka, my primary go-to lens was based on a survey and framework that specified various types of cultures and proposed that different cultures were appropriate for different kinds of organizations. This basic approach was reiterated and described in some detail in a Harvard Business Review cover story in January/February 2018.1 The authors identified multiple types of cultures for organizations and, though slightly different than those assessed by the framework I had been using, proposed that the “right” culture is situational—a choice leaders can make depending on the circumstances of their organizations.

They contended that each of the cultural styles has advantages and disadvantages, and “no style is inherently better than another.” For example, the culture for Disney is a caring one, the HBR article noted. Whole Foods’ is about purpose. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission seeks order. Zappos emphasizes enjoyment. If leaders put the wrong combination of elements together – results, caring and safety, for example – running the organization would be more difficult and employees would feel things were out of kilter. Instead, the leaders must choose the right combination based on factors such as the industry within which their organizations operate as well as its strategy and design.

My Culture Fascination Begins

My introduction to these situational or contingency frameworks came at a presentation by a culture specialist who had been working with a Fort Worth-based engineering firm.  The firm would go on to win the prestigious Baldridge award, in part because it aggressively managed its culture. As he left the stage, I asked him about his process and tools, and he directed me to a survey they were using.

You could easily plot the results of the survey and see how strong or weak your organization is along the various types or styles measured. I found it fascinating; I was hooked. Here was something quantitative I could use to help leaders create conditions where their people could do their best work. And the company could post better results. I first used the survey with two public agencies. I also took it to Saudi Arabia where I worked with the finance division of a major research institution. I used it in combination with qualitative assessments, both one-on-one interviews and group sessions.

The Situational Approach Falls Short

At one organization where employees were upset, a member I interviewed noted, “Make a mistake and you’re sent to the landfill and never heard from again.” Another said, “If a screw drops into the garbage disposal, there are five or six people in your office trying to beat you with clubs.” I had hoped the survey feedback would provide additional insight. It didn’t.

At another organization, a participant in a group session chose a photo from a magazine to express his frustration. The photo was taken at night and showed a warm, yellow blaze of light emanating from cracks in the doors, walls, and windows of a barn. “Looking at that barn from the outside was what it felt like to be left in the dark,” said the participant. Again, not enough insight from the survey as to what was really going on or what to do about it.

As good as the survey was at measuring culture at a very high level, I concluded that surveys like those proposed by the HBR authors do not provide the language or measurement necessary for change efforts. The one I used oversimplified the cultures I was assessing. It didn’t separate climate (e.g., perceptions of participation, appraisal systems, teamwork) from culture (the way we are expected to do things). Thus, I couldn’t tell where to suggest specific changes to systems like use of rewards and structures like employee involvement to improve the culture. Additionally, many such surveys don’t clearly measure norms for specific behaviors, are too short or superficial or, as noted above, propose that the styles that are most appropriate depend on an array of factors such as industry, strategy, and the preferences of leaders.

These shortcomings and obstacles vanished the first time I used the OEI and OCI tools in 2016. The assessment was for a construction company that specialized in building apartment complexes. I was familiar with the organization, had conducted several interviews, and knew those who held leadership roles. I guessed the OCI/OEI would show the current culture as Defensive.

Surprise! It showed the primary style of the current culture as Achievement where people are expected to pursue a standard of excellence, know the business and think ahead and plan. The secondary style was Humanistic/Encouraging where people are expected to help others to grow and develop, encourage others and resolve conflicts constructively.

There’s Power in the Details

Yet, there was room for change to make the culture even more Constructive. To do so would mean reducing Aggressive/Defensive styles and amping up things like showing concern for people and thinking in unique and independent ways. Consistent with what I saw in interviews was the need to ratchet down punishing people by giving them less desirable tasks to do. It would also mean effecting specific behavioral changes like listening better, being more tactful, openly showing more enthusiasm, and actively communicating ideas.

I was able to help leaders understand some of the actions they could take. At the semi-annual meeting of company leaders, a month after the report, they split themselves into five groups and dug into the Circumplex displaying elements of the current and ideal cultures. Each group took one or two of the circumplex pieces showing Constructive styles and one or two showing Defensive styles.

Interactive Circumplex

They brainstormed a list of actions to move the culture further into constructive territory. Each group shared their findings, then all leaders voted. Some of the items with the most votes were: Keep your word; Consider out-of-the-box ideas; Streamline the message and be sure the content is valuable; Increase person-to-person contact; and Reduce texts and emails.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is… there is a right culture for each organization. The right culture doesn’t depend on factors like industry or strategy.2 The right culture can only be uncovered using the right processes and tools. Do your homework to discover which ones those really are – and that will identify the gaps between current and ideal cultures, propose levers for change and move your leaders, employees and company in a Constructive direction.


Editor’s Note: The cultural styles discussed herein are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics. Some of the behaviors cited describing these styles are survey items from the Organizational Culture Inventory (Copyright 1987) and are used by the author with permission.

1 Groysberg, B., Lee, J., Price, J. & Cheng, J. Y. (2018). The leaders guide to corporate culture. Harvard Business Review, 96, 1, 44-52.

2 It’s not just me saying so; data-based and peer-reviewed research unquestioningly supports the conclusion that the OCI cultural norms are not related to strategy or industry. See, for example: Klein, A. (2011). Corporate Culture: Its value as a resource for competitive advantage. Journal of Business Strategy, 32 (2), 21-28. and Chaudhry, A., Yuan, L., Hu, J., & Cooke, R. A., (2016). What matters more? The impact of industry and organizational factors on organizational culture. Management Decision, 54, 3, 570-588. Also, with respect to ideal cultures, Constructive norms are consistently valued more than are Defensive norms across industries, across age groups, and by both women and men. The same is true across countries, though preferences for Defensive norms vary and are influenced somewhat by societal values. See chapter 1 of: Szumal, J.L. & Cooke, R.A. (2019). Creating Constructive Cultures. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.


About the Author

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Bill Bancroft

Bill Bancroft is Managing Principal of Conbrio, a Dallas-based consulting firm. He’s an accredited practitioner in the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®), Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI), Leadership/Impact® (L/I), and the Management/Impact® (M/I) instruments. Bill uses these and other diagnostics in his work guiding leaders and their teams in culture and leadership development. With deep expertise in strategy and innovation, his clientele spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.