The unintended consequences of strong cultures

Strong cultures are touted as the answer to almost every workplace problem. But beware - they bring issues of their own.

by Adi Gaskell
Last Updated: 12 Oct 2023

Ever since Peter Drucker famously remarked that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, there has been a considerable emphasis within organisations on developing their internal culture.

For instance, Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends reports regularly tout the benefits of investing in culture, and its 2021 edition cited organisational culture as the single most likely thing to transform the workplace. Other studies have cited culture as underpinning everything from remote working to an organisation’s sustainability ambitions.

The importance of culture was reinforced by recent research from consulting firm Culture Shift, which suggested that so-called toxic cultures were costing UK businesses billions. The researchers cited things like a lack of trust and respect, poor work-life balance, and generally not being valued as key markers of a toxic workplace culture.

Developing strong cultures

The desire to develop functioning and supportive workplace cultures has resulted in a huge array of models and methodologies sold by business schools and consultancies aiming to lead organisations toward the promised land. For instance, Cambridge University’s Judge Business School proposes a four-step process for creating so-called functional workplace cultures. (In brief, the four steps are to look for internal and external environmental changes, assess the efficacy of current cultures for these changes, search for suitable alternative cultures and create or implement new cultures.)

“We conclude that organisations should regularly go through the four-stage cycle to create cultures that fit the ever-changing external factors or environments that companies and other types of organisations face,” the researchers explain.

“All members of an organisation should continually engage in these types of assessments because adaptation to change is not a one-off organisational event.”

Advocates of developing a strong culture usually portray it as an unalloyed benefit with no possible downsides, but, of course, that isn’t the case. For instance, it’s well established that strong cultures can easily facilitate a kind of groupthink whereby any dissenting voices or values are either discounted or simply not recruited for in the first place.

Unintended consequences of strong cultures

Research from Rutgers University highlights that a strong organisational culture can also have unintended consequences in terms of tackling any inequalities that may exist.

In true Goldilocks style, the researchers found that having a culture that is too robust can blind managers to inequality. This is because managers in such organisations often identify so strongly with their organisation that they refuse to countenance the notion that inequality could possibly exist.

This managerial blindness matters, say the researchers, because getting buy-in from managers is crucial if diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are to succeed. Indeed, in various surveys, there have been concerns raised that managers tend to just go through the motions on DE&I initiatives rather than truly commit to them, leading to suitably lacklustre results.

“Previous theories point to demographics and ideology as to why managers resist diversity initiatives. We suggest that being in a position of power may be an overlooked explanation,” they explain. “It’s like a NIMBY, or ‘not in my backyard,’ bias. Inequity exists and we want to solve it, but it can’t exist in my organisation. After all, who wants to oversee an inequitable workplace?”

A prime example of this is Marc Benioff, who while championing the importance of diversity in the business community more broadly, famously denied the existence of inequality at Salesforce due to its exceptional culture.

He only changed his mind after he met two female executives, who persuaded him that inequality was very much a tangible problem. After the meeting, he agreed to conduct an audit into pay inequality, the first of which resulted in $3 million being spent on improving matters, with a further $3 million the year after.

“What turned it around for him was that he was given data by his fellow employees and he had to look the data in the eye,” the researchers explain.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The Rutgers study found that the higher up a manager is in their corporate hierarchy, the more likely they are to hold that organisation in extremely high esteem.

“Senior managers’ perception of their organisational ethics is more positive than lower-level employees. This is because among highly identified individuals, admitting that their organisation contains inequity would reflect negatively on the organisation and therefore, reflect negatively on one’s self-identity,” the researchers explain.

The study reminds us that for senior managers to buy-in to tackle diversity issues in their organisation, they first have to realise they exist. An unhealthy devotion to the culture of the organisation can often get in the way of accepting that.

To support diversity efforts at work, the researchers propose a few steps that leaders can take:

1. Address inequality

Encourage managers to look for examples of unfairness within their own teams. This helps them realise these issues exist in their workplace, counteracting the belief that it’s not a problem for them.

2. Change the discussion

Instead of saying that managers who resist diversity efforts have a personal flaw, focus on the positive aspects of their view of the company. This can make discussions about diversity more productive.

3. Raise awareness

Give managers ways to learn about inequality in their teams. This could involve using anonymous surveys and summaries of data (like charts) that show things like pay differences, opportunities for growth, and how included people feel. This information helps leaders make better decisions about diversity.

While these steps are not intended to be a panacea, they can hopefully help managers in even the strongest of organisational cultures accept that problems can nonetheless exist. Hopefully, their love for their organisation will prompt them to iron out the wrinkles they previously failed to spot.

Picture from Getty Images/Donald Iain Smith