There is No Such Thing as Culture

Try this experiment. For six months, ban the use of the word “culture” in your organisation. (The only exception is if you are a pharmaceutical company, in which case you may still have cultures, so long as they live in petri dishes).

Instead of “culture” say “the collection of habits and beliefs that determine how we do things around here.” This is not  a controversial redefinition, but it has remarkable results. How do you feel when someone says “we need to change the culture”? It seems like a huge task, like chipping away at an enormous  granite monolith.

Where you would even start?  But if you say “we need to change habits and beliefs,” that invites the question “all of them, or just some?” The answer, of course, is just some. Progress already! We have broken the task down into more manageable parts. And we know how to change habits and beliefs. 

The other reason for avoiding “culture” is that the word covers a multitude of different things, some of them deserving of respect, others not. As a diverse society we put a great deal of importance on understanding different national, ethnic and religious traditions and, quite rightly, respecting them. Organisational “cultures”, on the other hand, are more instrumental. They help the organisation achieve its goals or they do not. They may be dysfunctional, or simply outdated. 

An organisation which historically worked in a stable and predictable environment may have developed a habit of  risk aversion which serves it well so long as the environment remains stable and predictable. If it doesn’t, then that risk aversion can become dangerous. General Motors pre-bankruptcy was notorious for its belief that it knew everything and had nothing to learn from anyone. Asking someone to take more sensible risks or listen more to customers is not the same thing as offering the Rabbi a bacon sandwich. At its most degenerate “that’s not in our culture” is simply a way of giving spurious authority to “we don’t want to do that.”

Words have power. They determine what we think, what we notice, and what we believe right or possible and thus what we do. It may seem strange that a simple change of vocabulary could make such a difference, but give it a try.