Monday, 10 August 2015

Strong Cultures can be Negative

Culture is probably the most important tool that leaders have in their tool kit, and  managing culture in my view is a leader's primary job.

Some time back, I posted a piece on changing corporate culture. In that article, I used a definition of culture by Deal and Kennedy, as "The way we do things around here" (1982, p. 4). I think this definition is one of the easiest to remember, but the most difficult to undertake positively.

Despite the intrinsic importance of culture to our organisations, what marks good leaders apart from the poor ones is how they foster positive cultures on their watch.

I am not sure if you are aware, but having a strong culture is not necessarily always a good thing. Strong cultures can be negative as often as they can be positive.

An overly strong culture can hold the organisation so firmly in place that it cannot flex as the world changes around them, and can get left behind. We can see this with many retail chains: they are hoping that regulation will stop offshore purchases, rather than redefining the sales model; or newspapers still focusing on selling papers, rather than online micro-payments for access. The NY Times locked people out unless a fairly stiff monthly fee was paid: and their circulation continues to fall.

By the same token, a strong culture may weaken strategy because staff define the organisation too narrowly. US railways saw themselves as being in the rail industry, not in the transport industry; and was overtaken by air and sea freight.

A strong culture may prevent employee diversity through mirror hiring, where the organisation employs 'people like us' because of their perceived ‘fit’ with their cultural norms. Because of this, a strong culture might work as a tool to manipulate, dominate and oppress people within the organisation. Examples of this type of culture can be seen in value engineering, overly masculine cultures such as Enron, organisations with disproportionate gender, ethnic or age proportions, or organisations which operate using emotional labour.

And finally, strong cultures can unbalance people in their pursuit of a balanced lifestyle with work regularly over-running into personal time.

Watch out for those leaders who create positive cultures, and build their talents into your own leadership portfolio.


  • Daft, Richard L. & Pirola-Merlo, Andrew (2009). The Leadership Experience (Asia-Pacific Edition 1). Australia: Cengage.
  • Deal, Terrence E. & Kennedy, Allan A. (1982). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. UK: Penguin Books. 
  • Jackson, B. & Parry, K. (2011). A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Leadership (2nd Edition). NZ: Sage Publishing Ltd. 

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