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.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Robert Cooke, Ph.D.

Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. is CEO and Director of Human Synergistics International and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Cooke specializes in the development and validation of surveys used for individual, group, and organization development. His surveys include the Organizational Culture Inventory®, Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Leadership/Impact®, and Group Styles Inventory™, which have been translated into numerous languages and used worldwide for developing leaders, teams, and organizations. He is the author of more than 75 articles, chapters, and technical reports in journals including Psychological Reports and The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Cooke received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where he was a National Defense (Title IV) and Commonwealth Edison Fellow.