Corporate Culture or Collective Behavior?

How much attention should a CEO give to corporate culture? Are culture and behavior mutually inclusive, mutually exclusive, or unavoidably interdependent?

culture and behavior

In their Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, Deloitte Consulting states that 82 of their respondents think culture is a potential competitive advantage. The report concludes that culture is a business issue that can determine success or failure.

How a company creates or defines culture is a subject of some debate. The Deloitte study defines culture as the “values, beliefs, behaviors, artifacts, and reward systems that influence people’s behavior on a day-to-day basis.” The report goes on to say, “Culture includes all the behaviors that may or may not influence business performance.”

Perhaps a more simple, or certainly accurate definition is that culture is the collective behavior of people across an organization. Regardless of stated values, espoused beliefs, and independent of rewards systems, culture is the natural outcome of what people do. When people do whatever they do long enough, that behavior creates a culture.

I’ve been in companies where dysfunctional if not destructive actions between associates are routine. In one company, even the executive team would compete in an unhealthy way. Yet none of those companies would define their culture as being the actions you observed. All of them marketed themselves as something their behaviors did not support.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shared his perspective on culture.

“A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore,” (Amazon Shareholder Letter).

From my experience across multiple industries and companies, cultures change when behavior changes. Behavior changes when senior leaders, championed by a committed CEO set the standard, hold themselves accountable to that standard, and relentlessly hold people across the organization accountable for demonstrating the desired behaviors.

Culture studies, employee surveys, and well-written manifestos don’t create cultures. Focus on culture first or independent of behavior and you get what we got when we tried to create zero-defect cultures in the 80’s. You don’t get what you want, but you do get sophisticated ways for people to hide the fact they are not behaving consistent with an unrealistic or incongruous demand.

People create cultures by how they behave. Get the behavior right and culture will follow.