tim-kupplerGuest post by Tim Kuppler.

Culture is a hot topic and remains a tremendous opportunity for most organizations to further support their purpose, solve problems, and improve performance. Surveys highlight the importance of culture but also an inability to translate that awareness into results.
• Worldwide, 13% of employees are engaged (Gallup Survey)

• 96% of people believe culture change is needed in their organization in some form and 51% need a major culture overhaul (Booz & Company Survey)

A large part of the information that’s driving this improved awareness about culture is coming from popular press that barely touches the surface of what it takes to evolve an organizational culture. Recommended tips may be improving awareness, but they are far short of what we need. I realized this from my practical experience leading culture transformations in multiple organizations and then later as a culture and performance improvement consultant. Working with culture is key, but it is easier said than done. It’s important to understand culture fundamentals and how to apply them.

I believe the work of many culture thought leaders is being over-shadowed by over-simplified culture content from people that do not have deep experience in the field. One of the foremost authorities on culture is Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of many bestsellers including his most recent book, “Humble Inquiry –The Art of Asking and Not Telling”. I interviewed him and he shared his explanation of seven culture fundamentals:

1. Culture is a result of what an organization has learned from dealing with problems and organizing itself internally.
“I define culture as the sum total of everything an organization has learned in its history in dealing with the external problems – which would be goals, strategy, how we do things – and how it organizes itself internally.” This defines how we’re going to relate to each other, what kind of hierarchy exists, etc. “These early learnings, if they are successful, become the definition but it’s always something that’s been learned. It’s not something that just can be imposed or that’s just there.”
#Culture is like the lily pond. #Schein Click To Tweet
2. Do not oversimplify culture. It’s far more than “how we do things around here”
Culture is our core“Culture operates at many levels and certainly “how we do things around here” is the surface level. I like to think of culture to be like the lily pond. On the surface, you’ve got leaves and flowers and things that are very visible. That’s the “how we do things around here” but the explanation of why we do things in that way forces you to look at the root system, what’s feeding it and the history of the pond, who planted what. If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things this way you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level and you haven’t really understood it.”

3. Leaders should not focus on culture change – focus on a business problem
“If a leader just starts with how you change the culture then he already doesn’t understand the problem. You never start with changing. It’s like saying: would you decide someday to change your personality? The first question would be: Why would you want to do that? That’s the question I would ask any leader who says I think we need a culture change. I would say: 1) what do you mean by culture; and 2) why do you think you need to change at all? I would want to know: what’s your business problem, what isn’t working, why are you change-oriented in the first place?”

4. Be very specific about behavior, how it’s impacting your problem and the future state of the behavior you want to see
“Once a leader has identified a problem, “the key is to become very specific.” Edgar Schein explained an example where an organization was trying to improve sales. The sales culture was very competitive and they were working to build more collaboration. “I would ask the manager to define that very precisely. If we solve this problem what’s the behavior look like a year from now? I would force it to the point of them saying (for example): I guess I would have my salespeople go out as pairs and maybe even measure them as a pair. Now we are getting to where we can work something. How would we get the current people in sales to trust each other enough to go out as a pair? Now we can develop a program and say: how are we going to get there?”

5. Culture is a group phenomenon. Engage focus groups to define how the culture is helping and hindering work on a problem
“I would get together relevant groups of senior or middle managers and that becomes a tactical problem. What’s the right grouping to analyze the culture? Then I would sit that group down for a half day and say: here’s where we are trying to get, we want a collaborative sales force. Let’s look at our culture from the point of view of what it is and how it is going to help and how it is going to hinder, but always in the context of what we are trying to do.”
#Culture: discrepancy between values and behavior? Click To Tweet
6. Solve problems by identifying and resolving associated discrepancies between values and behavior
“I would give them a model like the lily pond and say: “Let’s talk about our culture at the surface level. What would somebody visiting here just see at this level.” Next, look at the values that seem alive behind that. As we get those spelled out, ask how these values mesh with what we’ve said who we are and almost always you discover that we already have the teamwork value because we published that, we put it on all of our banners, so how come we’re not there?

Edgar-Schein-QuoteThat discrepancy between the values and the behavior is what forces you into looking at the root system and you discover that we have always been individualistic. You might find we’re competitive. It’s the only way we can really think deep down. Now you are at the deeper level of the culture. You have to confront it and it may be beyond realistic to think of salespeople going out as teams.” The idea of implementing group pay may be raised and some may say “You’ve got to be kidding.” The facilitator might have to say: “If you are not going to have group pay then maybe the goal you are trying for is not achievable. Maybe they can’t collaborate if they don’t feel they are being rewarded as a group.” It may be necessary to “tackle our assumption about group pay and invent our way to some new cultural elements. That would be an example of a deep cultural change. It’s not driven by someone saying let’s have group pay. It’s driven by the discovery that unless we have group pay we can’t solve the business problem, and that’s a learning process.”

7. Don’t focus on culture because it can be a bottomless pit. Again, get groups involved in solving problems
“Don’t focus on culture because culture is a bottomless pit and can be a big waste of time. Just get your people involved in working on the solution to your business problem. If you don’t have time for that, you are in trouble (laugh). The way to work your business problem, again, is not necessarily to go to an outside expert but to develop an internal task force or problem-solving group that will help you tackle the problem. The solution is in internal involvement, maybe with an outsider helping that internal group be a better group, but the solution will come out of your internal efforts – not from some outsider.”


Edgar Schein shared that what troubles him the most is the “misuse of the word culture.” He believes “culture is not a surface phenomenon, it is our very core.” It’s important to learn and apply culture fundamentals from experts in order to achieve results instead of searching for the next tip, key, or best practice from the popular press.

  • What percentage of your coworkers or team members do you estimate to be engaged at work?
  • Would you assess your organization’s culture to be a problem or is there clear opportunity for improvement?
  • What specific behaviors do you need to see from team members more consistently?
  • What is a business problem, challenge, or goal that could be managed more effectively if these specific behaviors were consistently exhibited?
  • What’s on the surface of your lily pond with these behaviors? What’s at the root system?
  • How come these behaviors are not consistently displayed already?
  • What discrepancy do you see between values and behaviors?

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and the Director of Culture and Organization Development with Human Synergistics. He spent 15 years as a top leader facilitating major culture and performance transformations before becoming a consultant, author, and speaker. He authored the 2014 book – Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. http://www.cultureuniversity.com/

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gloria Bravo-Gutiérrez, Ph.D.

    This is an excellent interview and article. Thank you for making a valuable contribution to the body of knowledge on organizational culture. I also appreciate how actionable the information you present is for practitioners, whether they be coaches, organization development consultants, HR leaders, or executives.

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