Culture Isn’t Fixed in Reality

Many people treat their organisation culture as a historical legacy or some fixed reality. Your organisational culture isn’t mandated by history or by the present. Culture can be a real constraint to performance but it isn’t fixed or necessarily grounded in reality. Because culture is an expectation, it can definitely be changed when you give the community reasons to change their expectations.

Culture is a series of shared expectations of future behaviour of a member of a community. Expectations create and sustain your culture. These expectations are shaped by observation but they are more likely shaped by narratives, perceptions, biases and the expectations of others in the community. There are plenty of examples in history of where expectations have become widely divorced from the reality of the circumstances.

Expectations aren’t always real or founded in any history or present circumstances. Historical narratives in organisations are often carefully crafted myths that don’t reflect well on what really happened. The history has been developed to reinforce the current expectations, not record reality. In some cases, our assumptions and cognitive biases are so strong that we don’t even see the extent to which the organisational cultural expectations are inconsistent with what is going on right now.  How many senior executives relentlessly repeat that ‘people are our greatest asset’ while valuing other things more highly than their people. At times, you can wonder if the public discussion of culture is more performative than normative.  That discussion of culture better defines how things should appear to be than how they actually are manifested in behaviours in the organisation. Such a consequence can create an even greater disconnect from the cultural expectation as shared and behaviours as experienced.

The key point is that expectations can change. The people who change those expectations are the community of people in the organisation. Culture cannot be imposed, but it can change as these expectations adapt to different circumstances and to differing cultural values.  Nobody is fixed with a culture from history or present circumstances. The right leadership, narratives and conversations will enable new expectations.

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