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Or: Could your culture be creating a diversity problem?

Conventional wisdom suggests that if we want a successful business we should strive for a “strong” culture. But what does this mean? And is it healthy?

Part of the challenge in working with culture is the sheer volume of definitions that are in play, as Edgar Schein himself acknowledges when offering up a dynamic definition of culture as:

..the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel and behave in relation to those problems.

This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioural norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.

I’ve chosen this definition of culture in part as I think it’s as good as any other, and Schein is pretty much the main man on the subject, but also because it presents some issues with the subject.

I’ve highlighted some words that need to be considered carefully, specifically “the correct way to perceive, think, feel and behave”.

Whoa. Hang on a minute!

That’s a pretty strong statement. And herein lies the problem.

What is the role of norms in culture?

There’s a pretty strong emphasis on norms in most work on culture. Norms, policies, behavioural norms corporate identity, brand guidelines.. ..all to some extent imply rules.

Do we really think there should be a right way to think? Can there even be a “correct” way to perceive or feel? I think it’s fair to suggest that there are more or less correct ways to behave. More or less.

Personally, I think that the qualifier “in relation to those problems” (that the group has previously learned to solve together) is an important one in Schein’s definition.

What he’s saying is that a culture forms naturally when group learns some basic ways  of operating that, in certain familiar situations, aren’t discussed. They just happen. It’s implicit. That’s fair enough. Because in a novel situation, there probably will be a discussion, and a novel solution worked out.

However, we’re generally talking about a different context: the deliberate cultivation, change or management of a particular corporate culture.

In this context I would argue that the idea of rule and norms need to be considered very carefully, as the group’s orientation to rules is in and of itself a part of the culture. How do we see rules and norms? Do they help us, or do they constrain us or, more accurately, when do they help us and when do they constrain us? For example, on an oil rig they help people a lot, by keeping them alive. In a creative agency they’re probably often less helpful (but still sometimes important).

So – the more that culture is defined as a set of rules, whether they be explicit or implicit social rules, then the more we are defining that culture from narrow, potentially limiting perspective.

Should a culture be “strong”?

If you google this question, you will get a lot of hits (about 718, 000, 000). And unless you specifically search for the disadvantages of a strong culture, you might not find anything on the first couple of pages.

But what does “strong” when it applies to culture? Is it tightly defined? Is it distinctive? Is it consistent?

I’m by no means the first to suggest that there might be a downside to a ‘strong’ culture. For example, Garvin’s (2013) HBR case study, and Sørensen (2001) research, which found that while companies with strong cultures performed more reliably in a stable environment they did less well with volatility. And where are we now? So perhaps a ‘strong’ culture is less resilient.

This is kind of boring, but I’d suggest that if we have to use the word, a strong culture is one that is aligned to the strategic vision, mission and purpose of the business. It’s strong because it will then support business performance.

An alternative might be “clear”. That is, where there are norm and rules (I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have any), or other cultural signposts, they are clear in which way they are pointing but they allow room for interpretation, for people to find their own meaning; and if the signpost represents a destination, perhaps people can find their own way to get there.

I think “distinctive” might be helpful, because if it is aligned to strategy, then it should help to differentiate the company and its proposition to both customers and employees.

And how about “rich”? This implies that the culture includes lots of possibilities and meets diverse human needs. Apter (2001) talks about “motivational richness” as being important to personal satisfaction and health. Perhaps this ‘richness’ is key to organisational health, to  agility and the resilience from being able to adapt to prevailing conditions.

If an organisation’s culture doesn’t satisfy a diverse range of needs, it’s not inclusive, and you have a diversity problem. People can’t express different ideas, behave in different ways, challenge boundaries and norms. This is the fundamental problem with a culture that is too strong, too “correct”.

Partner that with high engagement, and what’s the result?

Isn’t that a cult?

In a cult, people can’t have thoughts of their own. Or at least they can’t express them. They can’t be different. They can’t challenge the status quo. Only true believers thrive.

We don’t really tend to talk about cults in formal business circles (though it makes a brief appearance in Garvin’s article), but it is the kind of language used in the canteen or the bar after work. “I didn’t like it there. It felt like a cult.” I’ve heard that.

It might appear dramatic to talk about cults. It’s provocative language, and deliberately so. But think about this. You set out on a culture change programme. You set out a very clear vision, values and behavioural norms. Some people love it, some hate it. The people that love it will thrive. The people that hate it will resist, possibly be seen as a problem, and most likely leave. You recruit some people, and some love it and some come in, puke on the carpet, “fail” and leave. You start recruiting to cultural fit. And before too long, you have an engaged workforce with a strong culture…

If  your business starts to resemble a cult – OK – less make it less dramatic – if written and unwritten rules are wound too tightly –  and you have a diversity problem, you have a business problem.

A lack of diversity of thought, of feeling, of behaviour means that your sources of creativity (your ability to find new solutions to problems), innovation and change (those solutions, implemented) are blocked.

In the current and most likely future business environment that’s not great, no matter how “engaged” your people are.

A culture that fosters inclusion (I don’t like talking in terms of ‘a culture of’, as I highlight in this article) inherently means being able to express one’s self safely, to share new and different ideas, and to challenge convention. And the more bound up you are in cultural rules, the less that can happen.

Simply put: Don’t be a cult.

How to avoid being a cult

I think that the fundamental problem with deliberate culture change is that you can try too hard to get it right. Getting it “right’ inevitably means that it has to pass some kind of a test to be signed off by an executive team. But cultures that form naturally do so through shared learning, co-creating meaning. Not by telling people how they should think.

Here are some thoughts on making sure that you don’t wind your corporate culture too tight.

  • Don’t think about culture in absolute terms. A lot of cultural models encourage ‘type’ thinking. Don’t think in terms of being this or that, think about being a bit more like this or a bit less like that.
  • Define only what’s really important. Define your culture in terms of what’s going to make the biggest difference to your performance, in strategic terms. Leave some ‘space’ for people and you’re more likely to find a culture that more people can relate to.
  • Allow ‘freedom within a framework’. Don’t define things too tightly. If you’re defining values, for example, use words that people will understand implicitly, and use as few words as you can to make your point. The more you have to explain, the more you risk being prescriptive. GM’s Mary Barra famously defined the dress code as “Dress appropriately”. This demonstrates trust and encourages an adult:adult relationship.
  • Actively encourage people to explore what ‘it’ means to them. What ever ‘it’ is (values, performance, behaviour…). Think about having facilitated sessions with open discussion about, say, what “trust” means to them. Let people in different functions or geographies create their own meaning that works in their context.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to manage culture. Indeed, I agree with the view that it is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of leadership and, as Schein also says, if you don’t manage culture, it will manage you. But it needs to be done with sensitivity, balance, inclusion in mind and the involvement of people.


Apter, M.J. (2001). Motivational styles in everyday life: A guide to reversal theory. American Psychological Association.

Garvin, D.A. (2013). Case Study: The Costs and Benefits of a Strong Culture. HRB online.

Schein, E.H. (2106). Organizational Culture and Leadership, 5th Editio. Jossey–Bass.

Sørensen, J.B. (2001). Culture and Reliability. MIT.


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