The wrong way to assess culture before attempting change

Let me preface this post with a confession about my fan love for classic Sci Fi films.

The story of George Taylor from Planet of the Apes. tells us how underestimating or judging a culture at face value can lead to missteps and frustration when it comes to being an agent for change. Near the beginning of the film, George was convinced that he could take over the planet, because the first sentient beings he encountered were primitive & “simple.” As he sardonically cracks:

Taylor makes an assumption without knowing who is truly in control of the planet & it's culture

Taylor makes an assumption without knowing who is truly in control of the planet & its culture

Alas, poor George ends up finding himself in this situation.


Then ultimately coming to this conclusion:


Of course at moment George made his initial assessment, he didn’t know what he was truly dealing with.

Making assumptions about the culture of the organization you when you’re attempting any change effort can result in the worst sort of initiative sabotage. It’s important that we instead really understand the culture of the groups we are working with and then plan accordingly.

Instead of judging & then blurting out our judgments about group culture like George, we should carefully observe the culture of the organization we work with, then start to make an assessment of whether that change will be possible and with what level or nature of effort.

I have a few grounding questions that I’m learning to ask to assess company culture. These questions attempt to go beyond evaluating the explicit mission & values. The answers can be indicators as to whether you’re going to have an uphill battle when it comes to making change happen.
I’ll be examining these questions in more detail in the future.

1) Who is successful, who succeeds? Who does not thrive or fails?

The plants that flourish can tell you a lot about the soil they grow from.

What personality traits and behaviors are encouraged in the company’s environment? This includes ones that are explicitly and implicitly encouraged? If over time you notice that people who agree vs. constructively provide alternative suggestions tend to succeed in the eyes of leadership, this may be an indicator that the group has a fear-motivated culture or is highly dependent on a those at the top for decision making. Also, when making change proposals, you might want to determine the best ways to introduce or couch the change on multiple levels, with executive leadership, management, and staff.

2) How does management interact with their direct reports? How do the staff perceive & react to their management? How is information presented? What is the general tone?

What is the tone of communications not just outward & official messaging, but everyday communication in email? Peer to peer or leader to subordinate and vice versa? Do people from varied levels of the company including front-line workers feel comfortable speaking up in town-halls? What kinds of questions are they bringing to leaders? Is sharing at all levels ‘guarded?’

Is humor appropriate to incorporate in presentations? If so how much? Use of humor can be difficult with cultures who are very formal. It might be helpful to observe how humor is used by leaders and influencers first.

3) What are the prevalent company attitudes and behaviors based on structure or hierarchy?
Is the organization top down oriented? Per the observations mentioned in the previous question about how management & staff interact with each other – observe if the culture is primarily based on a top down hierarchy or does it lean towards being a flat one where people on multiple levels of the organization are empowered to make most decisions?  Be wary that there are some groups that claim that they are ‘flat’ when the underlying culture really operates on hierarchical principles. More, is there a cult of personality built around the company leadership? It could be that you will have to first court management and leadership in your organization.  Change may not happen unless the leadership approves, and sadly, if Leadership is not decisive or open to other ideas outside of their own fold, change is going to be challenging and slow because in a top-down oriented hierarchy it’s always the boss or higher ups that come up with the best ideas, and rarely the employees. It’s a culture of deciders and doers.

Top-down management presumes that only the boss has the right answers. It vests power in the hands of people with titles and demands unquestioning compliance from people without them. From articleWhat Great Bosses Know About Top Down Management

It’s important for leaders to note that Millennial and Generation C employees entering the workforce are easily frustrated with communication in organizations with strict hierarchy. I am eager to see the influence that younger leaders may have on the cultures of the organizations they work in.

Hierarchy is almost necessary in large organizations, and strict hierarchy impacts the speed of change without decisive and empowering leadership chain.  I’m very interested in finding stories that demonstrate where innovation and change thrives in hierarchical cultures. Regardless of what type of culture you are dealing with, don’t make George’s mistake and underestimate the nature of that culture and it’s possible impact.

Additional Reading:

Comparison of  Both Flat and Hierarchical Organizations 

Millennials Can’t See Your Badge – Hierarchy Gap

Understanding Generation C: The Youtube Generation (Google)

Two Common Mistakes of Milennials at Work (HBR)


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