Proof that CEOs don’t understand their own organisational culture

This study measures the divergence between the values you profess and the values you see around you.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 07 Feb 2020

It’s been decades since Peter Drucker observed that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and most business people accept that this is essentially true. A strong culture isn’t just necessary for the effective execution of a strategy - because it is essential to draw out the best ideas from your people, it is also usually necessary in order to come up with the best strategy in the first place. Corporate results appear to be bear this out

Yet the preponderance of dysfunctional or even toxic cultures in workplaces across the country would seem to challenge the idea that leaders inspire better cultures as a consequence of this understanding. 

Part of the problem is defining what a ‘better culture’ actually looks like. Culture isn’t easily quantifiable, which means it tends to fall on the wrong side of another aphorism usually, though incorrectly attributed to Drucker: to paraphrase, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.

This of course doesn’t mean we can’t try to approximate the quality of a culture, and several attempts have been made to do so. 

In a recent study conducted by Brands With Values, in conjunction with Oystercatchers and Management Today’s sister title Campaign, 283 people in the creative industries (127 of them owners, founders or directors) were asked about their values, the values they observed in their business and the values they desired to see.

Each respondent was presented with a wall of between 81 and 99 words, representing a spectrum of positive and negative values, from which they then made selections.  

The healthiness of the culture was then determined in part by looking at what proportion of the ten values most selected were considered positive or negative and in part by looking at the divergence between the values individuals expressed and desired, and the values they actually experienced around them.

In essence, if the values you hold dear aren’t what you and especially others actually see, then there’s a problem with your culture. 

In this particular study, the results were mixed. The most important values to leaders and directors were ‘honest’, ‘driven’ and ‘human’, speaking to a need for authenticity, while for junior staff they were ‘ambitious’, ‘friendly’ and ‘creative’. 

Most interesting to us however is the fact that there was the least difference between the values professed by directors/owners and those they observed, while senior managers - i.e. the level below - were the most likely to observe negative values, specifically ‘short-term focus’ and ‘poor planning’, that were at odds with their personal values. 

The implication is that leaders may not see the negativity that exists in their business and indeed, it may be possible that they are the source of some of that negativity, at least to the people who report directly into them.  

It speaks to the essential problem that leaders have in larger or growing businesses - as the proportion of people they work with directly shrinks, so does their ability to know and influence the culture directly. 

It is yet another reason that leaders should remember to leave the corner office and actually speak with people at all levels, as well as making themselves approachable.  

Image credit: Eduardo Fuster/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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