Culture – Why is it Complicated?

Culture – Why is it Complicated?

Culture is not about employee happiness, how an organization feels, or about employee morale. Culture isn’t casual dress or foosball tables. Culture is multi-dimensional and interconnected. Culture is unique and complicated because people are unique and complicated.

Shared Experiences

Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people. Together people learn and make sense out of those experiences. For example, when I worked at Coopers & Lybrand, a project would begin and the leader would set the start time for the day. Then each day the team would show up a few minutes before the work day would start at 6 am or earlier. There was a legendary team that worked on an automotive account that would go out all night and then head into the office in the wee hours to begin their work day!

The shared experience taught employees that they were supposed to work hard and play hard. It also reinforced the belief that the number of hours you worked was a badge of honor. It was a culture where Saturday work in the office was expected and we felt lucky because we didn’t have to dress formally! We learned that success was measured in hours and face time.

Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people.

This visual representation of culture is based on Dr. Edgar Schein’s explanation of culture.

Culture Levels


Seeing the layers helps explain why “flip flops and free beer” is not culture. These are artifacts that you may see but there are underlying values and beliefs that create the true culture of the organization. This is the deep, stable (change resistant), interconnected nature of culture.

We worked with an organization whose CEO fancied it a high-tech company. The lunch rooms got a makeover and the walls were painted bright colors. Some walls were so bright they had to soften them by painting them a more subdued shade! The new décor didn’t create a high-tech culture. Their processes were still cumbersome, managers still believed people had to be in the office to do productive work (versus being able to work remotely) and the office was deadly silent versus buzzing with energy.  The artifacts contradicted what was really going on in the organization.

As you observe the artifacts of culture, be careful not to attribute too much meaning. There are beliefs and values that drive behaviors which could be very different than what you see. This is why change is much more challenging than making a declaration explaining what’s changing.

It’s complicated

Some leaders believe if they emulate the Google work environment, they’ll create the Google culture. Hopefully, we’ve shed some light on the reality that nap pods, free lunches, and cool décor are only a small aspect of culture. Deep levels of change require reworking foundational beliefs and mindsets. Culture is complicated!

Do you agree, or do you have a different perspective on culture? Please share your thoughts and ideas on social media.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

About the Author

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Donna Brighton

Faculty Donna Brighton is an expert in organizational culture and change. She advises CEO’s, Directors and executive teams throughout the world to increase leader, team and organizational effectiveness. Donna holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership as well an advanced certification in Organizational Change Management. A recognized thought leader in the field of organizational change she was co-editor for the People & Strategy Journal special edition on change management. Donna is a founder of the Global Association of Change Management Professionals, served as President for two years and a volunteer Board member for nearly a decade. Combining her love of wine, learning and leadership, she and Scott Beilke created Leadership Uncorked. This powerful partnership delivers extraordinary leadership learning experiences for leaders and teams around the world. Why not uncork your potential and increase your effectiveness?