There has been much talk about business culture lately and all of it warranted. The need for companies to increase flexibility, adapt and creatively innovate has never been greater. Yet how? Talking about business culture is much easier than knowing how to work with it particularly when you’re not really sure what IT is.

Have you ever done a routine drive from Point A to Point B and not remembered how you got there? Somehow the car knew the way. Well, actually, as Dr. Bruce Lipton explains, your subconscious, a mighty super computer that processes data at lightning speed, automatically took over while you were busy chatting to a fellow passenger or lost in thought. (See Chapter 7 in Decision Making for Dummies).

A conservative estimate is that ninety percent of what powers results in your life is hidden from your conscious awareness unless you become more consciously aware of course!

Your company’s culture works much the same way. In the beginning everyone pays attention to the signals, watching for cues on where to go next. Any beliefs or assumptions about what you want to achieve or why you exist (or should thrive) is more top of your mind. But eventually, as the company progresses and everyone gets busy making things happen what you once paid active attention to goes underground. So while everyone is busy paying attention to what is visible, the invisible drives results. Ambitions to innovate and make big changes get pulled back like an undertow so that the best you get is incremental change. This isn’t good enough for today’s business climate.

The last decade has been marked by increased complexity doubly loaded with uncertainty. Company decision-makers might ask:

“How can we engage our employees in achieving our goal? How can we reclaim and keep our edge?

How will climate change impact our operations?

How can we move from incremental to agile and adaptive fitness?

Can we do this without changing what we’re doing now or ourselves?”

Spotting the Signals

[Warning. I’ve presented worse case scenarios to make the point.]

#1: Your boss is constantly nitpicking, negative and it’s demoralizing for everyone. You wake up in the morning with a pit in your stomach assuming you’ve slept at all.

Signal: The culture values use of authority over employee engagement. The underlying assumption is that employees are replaceable and performance must be forced and controlled. This behaviour is very characteristic of traditionally managed companies. In another context, your boss may be a super guy, but at work, he/she is influenced by the unspoken expectations.

Side-effect: Authority is confused with leadership. Transformational Leadership uses uncertainty to go where others have not gone before. When a person in authority has low self-esteem, there is a compelling need to be right which unfortunately means neither the person in the position nor the company can grow. Focus is on maintaining the status quo. Growth isn’t possible no matter how many metrics you come up with.

#2: You’ve been asked to manage a project, inject innovative approaches and been given free license to do things differently. So you do. Normally red flags are raised at the end of the project because no one wants to admit there might be mistakes along the way. Your approach is to raise concerns as they arise so that the costs of fixing them are lower and the project can stay in tune with changes. Your superior has a melt-down when red flags are raised early because it makes him/her look bad. What is going on? Fred Simon, now retired project manager of the 1995 Lincoln Continental, describes the effect as the organizational immune system. It’s less of an immune system and more of an underlying belief system buried in the culture. That’s why I talk about leveraging the invisible so your culture works for you rather than sabotaging good ideas. By the way, some large companies have innovation cells protected from the rest of the company’s culture. Without them, innovation is a word, not a generator of wealth.

Signal: Failure to recognize that innovation means uncertainty and unexpected events indicates that maintaining the status quo and certainty is more important than company growth. It’s a classic case of “go forth and innovate but don’t do anything different”. When a superior explodes he/she is simply revealing the underlying cultural belief that mistakes are bad.

Side-effect: Most people quit their bosses not their jobs. Bad behaviour on the part of managers signals an out-of-date business culture though it’s easier to blame it all on the manager. The manager’s reaction suggests he/she is being rewarded for all the wrong reasons. Career standing isn’t based on results; it’s based on maintaining control and certainty at any cost. No one and no company can grow in those conditions.

#3: You’ve caught a co-worker doing something unethical. You’re tempted to report it but the last time someone reported unethical behaviour they were reprimanded. You decide to keep your mouth shut.

Signal: This is a company that will do anything to survive including harming others, employees included. It’s modelling unethical behaviour, so naturally it supports unethical conduct.

Side-effect: Months later, the entire company succumbs to fraud charges and everyone is out. Alternatively, employee effort is not being spent on achieving company goals; rather the company has trained them to be unethical through how it treats its employees. Trust is low.

#4: You walk into a meeting (reluctantly) knowing full well meetings are pointless. One person leads the discussion and everyone is pressured to agree. Conflicting views are treated as challenges to authority or they’re expressed as personal criticism.

Signal: Low levels of trust are supported so everyone is protecting themselves. Differences of view aren’t being harnessed to create better solutions. Ideas that stray from the norm are pressured to conform. The culture is rooted in a need for harmony over learning and teamwork. It’s risk adverse.

Side-effect: Difficult conversation can’t take place. Workplace relationships are toxic or unhealthy. Forget growth.

#5: Your unit is overtasked by over 400% and another unit is on idle. You approach the manager to ask if he/she would loan you some help so you can get your work done. They refuse because sharing their talent won’t help his/her performance appraisal.

Signal: This company is organized around the assumption that employees can’t be trusted and need to be told what to do. In effect, managing the people is more important than getting the work done and the metrics reinforce that assumption. In contrast, companies organized around achieving big goals trust their people and so use accomplishment as the measure. Metrics do matter. So do results.

Side-effect: The adage what gets measured gets managed proves itself to be true. Disengaged employees are an unintended side-effect because talent is idling. The company is training employees to be passive.

Moving Forward

Part 2 will talk about how to change culture by not focusing on changing it.


The global and business issues we face today require full employee engagement and a different thinking. Dawna loves to work collaboratively to evolve and transform workplaces to be more ‘fit’, agile and inspiring. By shifting perspective to expose the invisible elements creating routine results, clients gain the strength and clarity needed to remove barriers to growth. Intelligent and intuitive insights strengthen leadership capacity to use complexity fluently and grow beyond the limitations of profit to achieve greater prosperity and value. To activate a quantum leap in leadership, Dawna started the Evolutionary Provocateur podcast in 2008. Author of Decision Making for Dummies, a speaker and a tad nomadic, Dawna is currently working on using Virtual and Augmented Reality to accelerate business culture change and human potential. An original thinker, she brings personal experience with resilience and transformation to her leadership.


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