Strategy and culture are among the primary levers at top leaders’ disposal in their never-ending quest to maintain organizational viability and effectiveness. Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.
Strategy provides clarity and focus for collective action and decision making. It relies on plans and sets of choices to mobilize people and can often be enforced by both concrete rewards for achieving goals and consequences for failing to do so. Ideally, it also incorporates adaptive elements that can scan and analyze the external environment and sense when changes are required to maintain continuity and growth. Leadership goes hand-in-hand with strategy formation, and most leaders understand the fundamentals. Culture, however, is a more elusive lever, because much of it is anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns.
For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions (sometimes with unintended consequences). The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process.
Unfortunately, in our experience it is far more common for leaders seeking to build high-performing organizations to be confounded by culture. Indeed, many either let it go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business. They may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Our work suggests that culture can, in fact, be managed. The first and most important step leaders can take to maximize its value and minimize its risks is to become fully aware of how it works. By integrating findings from more than 100 of the most commonly used social and behavioral models, we have identified eight styles that distinguish a culture and can be measured. (We gratefully acknowledge the rich history of cultural studies—going all the way back to the earliest explorations of human nature—on which our work builds.) Using this framework, leaders can model the impact of culture on their business and assess its alignment with strategy. We also suggest how culture can help them achieve change and build organizations that thrive in even the most trying times.
Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.
Culture can also evolve flexibly and autonomously in response to changing opportunities and demands. Whereas strategy is typically determined by the C-suite, culture can fluidly blend the intentions of top leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees.
As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
The academic literature on the subject is vast. Our review of it revealed many formal definitions of organizational culture and a variety of models and methods for assessing it. Numerous processes exist for creating and changing it. Agreement on specifics is sparse across these definitions, models, and methods, but through a synthesis of seminal work by Edgar Schein, Shalom Schwartz, Geert Hofstede, and other leading scholars, we have identified four generally accepted attributes:
Culture is a group phenomenon. It cannot exist solely within a single person, nor is it simply the average of individual characteristics. It resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is most commonly experienced through the norms and expectations of a group—that is, the unwritten rules.
Culture permeates multiple levels and applies very broadly in an organization; sometimes it is even conflated with the organization itself. It is manifest in collective behaviors, physical environments, group rituals, visible symbols, stories, and legends. Other aspects of culture are unseen, such as mindsets, motivations, unspoken assumptions, and what David Rooke and William Torbert refer to as “action logics” (mental models of how to interpret and respond to the world around you).
Culture can direct the thoughts and actions of group members over the long term. It develops through critical events in the collective life and learning of a group. Its endurance is explained in part by the attraction-selection-attrition model first introduced by Benjamin Schneider: People are drawn to organizations with characteristics similar to their own; organizations are more likely to select individuals who seem to “fit in”; and over time those who don’t fit in tend to leave. Thus culture becomes a self-reinforcing social pattern that grows increasingly resistant to change and outside influences.
An important and often overlooked aspect of culture is that despite its subliminal nature, people are effectively hardwired to recognize and respond to it instinctively. It acts as a kind of silent language. Shalom Schwartz and E.O. Wilson have shown through their research how evolutionary processes shaped human capacity; because the ability to sense and respond to culture is universal, certain themes should be expected to recur across the many models, definitions, and studies in the field. That is exactly what we have discovered in our research over the past few decades.
Eight Distinct Culture Styles
Our review of the literature for commonalities and central concepts revealed two primary dimensions that apply regardless of organization type, size, industry, or geography: people interactions and response to change. Understanding a company’s culture requires determining where it falls along these two dimensions.
An organization’s orientation toward people interactions and coordination will fall on a spectrum from highly independent to highly interdependent. Cultures that lean toward the former place greater value on autonomy, individual action, and competition. Those that lean toward the latter emphasize integration, managing relationships, and coordinating group effort. People in such cultures tend to collaborate and to see success through the lens of the group.
Response to change.
Whereas some cultures emphasize stability—prioritizing consistency, predictability, and maintenance of the status quo—others emphasize flexibility, adaptability, and receptiveness to change. Those that favor stability tend to follow rules, use control structures such as seniority-based staffing, reinforce hierarchy, and strive for efficiency. Those that favor flexibility tend to prioritize innovation, openness, diversity, and a longer-term orientation. (Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, and Robert Ernest are among the researchers who employ similar dimensions in their culture frameworks.)
By applying this fundamental insight about the dimensions of people interactions and response to change, we have identified eight styles that apply to both organizational cultures and individual leaders. Researchers at Spencer Stuart (including two of this article’s authors) have interdependently studied and refined this list of styles across both levels over the past two decades.
Caring focuses on relationships and mutual trust. Work environments are warm, collaborative, and welcoming places where people help and support one another. Employees are united by loyalty; leaders emphasize sincerity, teamwork, and positive relationships.
Purpose is exemplified by idealism and altruism. Work environments are tolerant, compassionate places where people try to do good for the long-term future of the world. Employees are united by a focus on sustainability and global communities; leaders emphasize shared ideals and contributing to a greater cause.
Learning is characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity. Work environments are inventive and open-minded places where people spark new ideas and explore alternatives. Employees are united by curiosity; leaders emphasize innovation, knowledge, and adventure.
Enjoyment is expressed through fun and excitement. Work environments are lighthearted places where people tend to do what makes them happy. Employees are united by playfulness and stimulation; leaders emphasize spontaneity and a sense of humor.
Results is characterized by achievement and winning. Work environments are outcome-oriented and merit-based places where people aspire to achieve top performance. Employees are united by a drive for capability and success; leaders emphasize goal accomplishment.
Authority is defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness. Work environments are competitive places where people strive to gain personal advantage. Employees are united by strong control; leaders emphasize confidence and dominance.
Safety is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Employees are united by a desire to feel protected and anticipate change; leaders emphasize being realistic and planning ahead.
Order is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms. Work environments are methodical places where people tend to play by the rules and want to fit in. Employees are united by cooperation; leaders emphasize shared procedures and time-honored customs.
These eight styles fit into our integrated culture framework
according to the degree to which they reflect independence or interdependence (people interactions) and flexibility or stability (response to change). Styles that are adjacent in the framework, such as safety and order, frequently coexist within organizations and their people. In contrast, styles that are located across from each other, such as safety and learning, are less likely to be found together and require more organizational energy to maintain simultaneously. Each style has advantages and disadvantages, and no style is inherently better than another. An organizational culture can be defined by the absolute and relative strengths of each of the eight and by the degree of employee agreement about which styles characterize the organization. A powerful feature of this framework, which differentiates it from other models, is that it can also be used to define individuals’ styles and the values of leaders and employees.
Inherent in the framework are fundamental trade-offs. Although each style can be beneficial, natural constraints and competing demands force difficult choices about which values to emphasize and how people are expected to behave. It is common to find organizations with cultures that emphasize both results and caring, but this combination can be confusing to employees. Are they expected to optimize individual goals and strive for outcomes at all costs, or should they work as a team and emphasize collaboration and shared success? The nature of the work itself, the business strategy, or the design of the organization may make it difficult for employees to be equally results focused and caring.
In contrast, a culture that emphasizes caring and order encourages a work environment in which teamwork, trust, and respect are paramount. The two styles are mutually reinforcing, which can be beneficial but can also present challenges. The benefits are strong loyalty, retention of talent, lack of conflict, and high levels of engagement. The challenges are a tendency toward groupthink, reliance on consensus-based decisions, avoidance of difficult issues, and a calcified sense of “us versus them.” Leaders who are more focused on results and learning may find the combination of caring and order stifling when they seek to drive entrepreneurship and change. Savvy leaders make use of existing cultural strengths and have a nuanced understanding of how to initiate change. They might rely on the participative nature of a culture focused on caring and order to engage team members and simultaneously identify a learning-oriented “insider” who has the trust of his or her peers to advocate for change through relationship networks.
The eight styles can be used to diagnose and describe highly complex and diverse behavioral patterns in a culture and to model how likely an individual leader is to align with and shape that culture. Using this framework and multilevel approach, managers can:
- Understand their organization’s culture and assess its intended and unintended effects
- Evaluate the level of consistency in employees’ views of the culture
- Identify subcultures that may account for higher or lower group performance
- Pinpoint differences between legacy cultures during mergers and acquisitions
- Rapidly orient new executives to the culture they are joining and help them determine the most effective way to lead employees
- Measure the degree of alignment between individual leadership styles and organizational culture to determine what impact a leader might have
- Design an aspirational culture and communicate the changes necessary to achieve it
The Link Between Culture and Outcomes
Our research and practical experience have shown that when you are evaluating how culture affects outcomes, the context in which the organization operates—geographic region, industry, strategy, leadership, and company structure—matters, as does the strength of the culture. (See “Context, Conditions, and Culture.”) What worked in the past may no longer work in the future, and what worked for one company may not work for another.
We have arrived at the following insights:
When aligned with strategy and leadership, a strong culture drives positive organizational outcomes.
Consider the case of a best-in-class retailer headquartered in the United States. The company had viewed its first priority as providing top-notch customer service. It accomplished this with a simple rule—Do right by the customer—that encouraged employees to use their judgment when providing service. A core HR training practice was to help every salesperson see customer interactions as an opportunity to create “service stories that become legendary.” Employees were reminded to define service from the customer’s perspective, to constantly engage customers with questions geared toward understanding their specific needs and preferences, and to go beyond their expectations.
In measuring the culture of this company, we found that like many other large retailers, it was characterized primarily by a combination of results and caring. Unlike many other retailers, however, it had a culture that was also very flexible, learning oriented, and focused on purpose. As one top executive explained, “We have freedom as long as we take good care of the customer.”
Furthermore, the company’s values and norms were very clear to everyone and consistently shared throughout the organization. As the retailer expanded into new segments and geographies over the years, the leadership strove to maintain an intense customer focus without diluting its cherished culture. Although the company had historically focused on developing leaders from within—who were natural culture carriers—recruiting outsiders became necessary as it grew. The company preserved its culture through this change by carefully assessing new leaders and designing an onboarding process that reinforced core values and norms.
Culture is a powerful differentiator for this company because it is strongly aligned with strategy and leadership. Delivering outstanding customer service requires a culture and a mindset that emphasize achievement, impeccable service, and problem solving through autonomy and inventiveness. Not surprisingly, those qualities have led to a variety of positive outcomes for the company, including robust growth and international expansion, numerous customer service awards, and frequent appearances on lists of the best companies to work for.
Selecting or developing leaders for the future requires a forward-looking strategy and culture.
The chief executive of an agriculture business was planning to retire, spurring rumors about a hostile takeover. The CEO was actively grooming a successor, an insider who had been with the company for more than 20 years. Our analysis revealed an organizational culture that strongly emphasized caring and purpose. As one leader reflected, “You feel like part of a large family when you become an employee at this company.”
The potential successor understood the culture but was far more risk-averse (safety) and respectful of traditions (order) than the rest of the company. Given the takeover rumors, top leaders and managers told the CEO that they believed the company needed to take a more aggressive and action-oriented stance in the future. The board decided to consider the internal candidate alongside people from outside the company.
Cultural dynamics are a frequently overlooked factor in postmerger performance.
Three external candidates emerged: one who was aligned with the current culture (purpose), one who would be a risk taker and innovative (learning), and one who was hard-driving and competitive (authority). After considerable deliberation, the board chose the highly competitive leader with the authority style. Soon afterward an activist investor attempted a hostile takeover, and the new CEO was able to navigate through the precarious situation, keep the company independent, and simultaneously begin to restructure in preparation for growth.
In a merger, designing a new culture on the basis of complementary strengths can speed up integration and create more value over time.
Mergers and acquisitions can either create or destroy value. Numerous studies have shown that cultural dynamics represent one of the greatest yet most frequently overlooked determinants of integration success and postmerger performance.
For example, senior leaders from two merging international food retailers had invested heavily in their organizations’ cultures and wanted to preserve their unique strengths and distinct heritages. An assessment of the cultures revealed shared values and areas of compatibility that could provide a foundation for the combined culture, along with important differences for which leaders would have to plan: Both companies emphasized results, caring, and order and valued high-quality food, good service, treating employees fairly, and maintaining a local mindset. But one operated in a more top-down manner and scored much higher on authority, especially in the behavior of leaders.
Because both companies valued teamwork and investments in the local community, the leaders prioritized caring and purpose. At the same time, their strategy required that they shift from top-down authority to a learning style that would encourage innovation in new-store formats and online retailing. As one senior leader said of the strategic aspiration, “We need to dare to do things differently, not play by the old rule books.”
Once they had agreed on a culture, a rigorous assessment process identified leaders at both organizations whose personal style and values would allow them to serve as bridges to and champions for it. Then a program was launched to promote cultural alignment within 30 top teams, with an emphasis on clarifying priorities, making authentic connections, and developing team norms that would bring the new culture to life.
Finally, structural elements of the new organization were redesigned with culture in mind. A model for leadership was developed that encompassed recruitment, talent assessment, training and development, performance management, reward systems, and promotions. Such design considerations are often overlooked during organizational change, but if systems and structures don’t align with cultural and leadership imperatives, progress can be derailed.
In a dynamic, uncertain environment, in which organizations must be more agile, learning gains importance.
It’s not surprising that results is the most common culture style among all the companies we have studied. Yet during a decade of helping leaders design aspirational cultures, we have seen a clear trend toward prioritizing learning to promote innovation and agility as businesses respond to increasingly less predictable and more complex environments. And although learning ranks fourth within our broader database, small companies (200 employees or fewer) and those in newer industries (such as software, technology, and wireless equipment) accord it higher values.
Consider one Silicon Valley–based technology company we worked with. Though it had built a strong business and invested in unique technology and top engineering talent, its revenue growth was starting to decline as newer, nimbler competitors made strides in a field exploding with innovation and business model disruption. Company leaders viewed the culture as a differentiator for the business and decided to diagnose, strengthen, and evolve it. We found a culture that was intensely results focused, team based (caring), and exploratory (a combination of enjoyment and learning).
After examining the overall business strategy and gaining input from employees, leaders aimed for a culture that was even more focused on learning and adopted our framework as a new language for the organization in its daily work. They initiated conversations between managers and employees about how to emphasize innovation and exploration. Although it takes time to change a culture, we found that the company had made notable progress just one year later. And even as it prepared for an impending sale amid ever greater competition and consolidation, employee engagement scores were on the rise.
A strong culture can be a significant liability when it is misaligned with strategy.
We studied a Europe-based industrial services organization whose industry began to experience rapid and unprecedented changes in customer expectations, regulatory demands, and competitive dynamics. The company’s strategy, which had historically emphasized cost leadership, needed to shift toward greater service differentiation in response. But its strong culture presented a roadblock to success.
We diagnosed the culture as highly results oriented, caring, and order seeking, with a top-down emphasis on authority. The company’s leaders decided to shape it to be much more purpose-driven, enabling, open, and team based, which would entail an increase in caring along with learning and purpose and a decrease in authority and results.
This shift was particularly challenging because the current culture had served the organization well for many years, while the industry emphasized efficiency and results. Most managers still viewed it as a strength and fought to preserve it, threatening success for the new strategic direction.
Cultural change is daunting for any organization, but as this company realized, it’s not impossible. The CEO introduced new leadership development and team coaching programs and training opportunities that would help leaders feel more comfortable with cultural evolution. When people departed, the company carefully selected new leaders who would provide supporting values, such as caring, and increased the emphasis on a shared purpose. The benefits of this strategic and cultural shift took the form of an increasingly diverse array of integrated service offerings and strong growth, particularly in emerging markets.
Four Levers for Evolving a Culture
Unlike developing and executing a business plan, changing a company’s culture is inextricable from the emotional and social dynamics of people in the organization. We have found that four practices in particular lead to successful culture change:
Articulate the aspiration.
Much like defining a new strategy, creating a new culture should begin with an analysis of the current one, using a framework that can be openly discussed throughout the organization. Leaders must understand what outcomes the culture produces and how it does or doesn’t align with current and anticipated market and business conditions. For example, if the company’s primary culture styles are results and authority but it exists in a rapidly changing industry, shifting toward learning or enjoyment (while maintaining a focus on results) may be appropriate.
An aspirational culture suggests the high-level principles that guide organizational initiatives, as at the technology company that sought to boost agility and flexibility amid increasing competition. Change might be framed in terms of real and present business challenges and opportunities as well as aspirations and trends. Because of culture’s somewhat ambiguous and hidden nature, referring to tangible problems, such as market pressures or the challenges of growth, helps people better understand and connect to the need for change.
Select and develop leaders who align with the target culture.
Leaders serve as important catalysts for change by encouraging it at all levels and creating a safe climate and what Edgar Schein calls “practice fields.” Candidates for recruitment should be evaluated on their alignment with the target. A single model that can assess both organizational culture and individual leadership styles is critical for this activity.
Incumbent leaders who are unsupportive of desired change can be engaged and re-energized through training and education about the important relationship between culture and strategic direction. Often they will support the change after they understand its relevance, its anticipated benefits, and the impact that they personally can have on moving the organization toward the aspiration. However, culture change can and does lead to turnover: Some people move on because they feel they are no longer a good fit for the organization, and others are asked to leave if they jeopardize needed evolution.
Use organizational conversations about culture to underscore the importance of change.
To shift the shared norms, beliefs, and implicit understandings within an organization, colleagues can talk one another through the change. Our integrated culture framework can be used to discuss current and desired culture styles and also differences in how senior leaders operate. As employees start to recognize that their leaders are talking about new business outcomes—innovation instead of quarterly earnings, for example—they will begin to behave differently themselves, creating a positive feedback loop.
Various kinds of organizational conversations, such as road shows, listening tours, and structured group discussion, can support change. Social media platforms encourage conversations between senior managers and frontline employees. Influential change champions can advocate for a culture shift through their language and actions. The technology company made a meaningful change in its culture and employee engagement by creating a structured framework for dialogue and cultivating widespread discussion.
Reinforce the desired change through organizational design.
When a company’s structures, systems, and processes are aligned and support the aspirational culture and strategy, instigating new culture styles and behaviors will become far easier. For example, performance management can be used to encourage employees to embody aspirational cultural attributes. Training practices can reinforce the target culture as the organization grows and adds new people. The degree of centralization and the number of hierarchical levels in the organizational structure can be adjusted to reinforce behaviors inherent to the aspirational culture. Leading scholars such as Henry Mintzberg have shown how organizational structure and other design features can have a profound impact over time on how people think and behave within an organization.
Putting It All Together
All four levers came together at a traditional manufacturer that was trying to become a full solutions provider. The change started with reformulating the strategy and was reinforced by a major brand campaign. But the president understood that the company’s culture represented the biggest barrier to change and that the top leaders were the greatest lever for evolving the culture.
The culture was characterized by a drive for results followed by caring and purpose, the last of which was unusually strong for the industry. One employee described the company as “a talented and committed group of people focused on doing good for the planet, with genuine desire, support, and encouragement to make a difference in the community.” Whereas the broader culture was highly collaborative, with flat decision making, leaders were seen as top-down, hierarchical, and sometimes political, which discouraged risk taking.
The top leaders reviewed their culture’s strengths and the gaps in their own styles and discussed what was needed to achieve their strategic aspirations. They agreed that they needed more risk taking and autonomy and less hierarchy and centralized decision making. The president restructured the leadership team around strong business line leaders, freeing up time to become a better advocate for the culture and to focus more on customers.
The top team then invited a group of 100 middle managers into the conversation through a series of biannual leadership conferences. The first one established a platform for input, feedback, and the cocreation of an organizational change plan with clear cultural priorities. The president organized these managers into teams focused on critical business challenges. Each team was required to go outside the company to source ideas, to develop solutions, and to present its findings to the group for feedback. This initiative placed middle managers in change roles that would traditionally have been filled by vice presidents, giving them greater autonomy in fostering a learning-based culture. The intent was to create real benefits for the business while evolving the culture.
The president also initiated a program to identify employees who had positive disruptive ideas and working styles. These people were put on project teams that addressed key innovation priorities. The teams immediately began improving business results, both in core commercial metrics and in culture and engagement. After only one year employee engagement scores jumped a full 10 points, and customer Net Promoter Scores reached an all-time high—providing strong client references for the company’s new and innovative solutions.
It is possible—in fact, vital—to improve organizational performance through culture change, using the simple but powerful models and methods in this article. First leaders must become aware of the culture that operates in their organization. Next they can define an aspirational target culture. Finally they can master the core change practices of articulation of the aspiration, leadership alignment, organizational conversation, and organizational design. Leading with culture may be among the few sources of sustainable competitive advantage left to companies today. Successful leaders will stop regarding culture with frustration and instead use it as a fundamental management tool.