Why It’s So Difficult to Really Change a Company Culture

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When a company culture is dysfunctional, it can affect business success.

HR or Organizational Development (OD) may try to change it. And sometimes they do — for about a day. But most blanket attempts to change the culture of a whole company are wasted efforts.

Why is culture so difficult to change? Because we think of company culture as if there is only one for the whole company. Everyone having the same mindset, thoughts and views about how a company should work. Kind of like the “Stepford Wives” of the corporate world.

We conveniently forget the fact that no real-world company works as one uniform whole. In the 21st Century, the business world is far too complex for companies to function as a single culture.

The 3 subcultures at work in most companies

Doctors view the world differently than nurses; manufacturing engineers look at the world differently than finance people. These sub-cultures and others are very strong and the people in them look at the world through different lenses.

Ed Schein helped found the field of OD in the 1950s. This professor at MIT developed the “subculture” theory. He believes there are typically three (3) at work in most companies:

  1. Operations subculture — The people who get products and services out the door, the drivers of day-to-day process. They view people as potentially valuable team members that are capable and reliable. They know that technology generally doesn’t work unless people are around to work out the “kinks”. Operations managers appreciate the importance of finance and raising capital, but they have no gut feel for it —- nor do they feel warm and fuzzy towards engineers who see operations people as troublesome nuisances.
  2. Engineering subculture — The engineers and technical specialists that focus on the design challenge of creating an ideal world of elegant machines. The only thing they’re impatient with is other people. They are preoccupied with designing humans out of the systems rather than into them.
  3. Executive subculture — The people who focus on deals, leverage, and capital flow. Members of this culture typically include the CEO, the board, the business-unit leaders, and the finance staff. They are the only ones directly accountable for the company’s obligation to return money and value to shareholders. Because they are so “money” driven, they tend to view people as “costs” — i.e., expendable resources.

It’s not easy to move from subculture to subculture.

Failing to deal with subculture differences

Take Ron Johnson for example. He moved from the head of Marketing at Apple to be the “turnaround” CEO at J.C. Penney. Ron’s mantra at JCP was a carbon copy of Steve Jobs, his manager at Apple: “Customers don’t know what they want.

Like Jobs he wanted to go with revolutionary change. But JCP’s products are commodities — not revolutionary tech products. Apple’s business model didn’t work at JCP. After 18 months he “resigned.” You might say that he went from a predominantly engineering subculture to a predominantly operations culture.

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People in any one of these three subcultures have a difficult time understanding that others have different viewpoints. They don’t understand why their counterparts in other subcultures can’t see “reality” the way they do.

The big challenge

The reality of separate subcultures can show itself in various ways. If an employee is transferred from an operations to an engineering subculture, he/she may find that it’s almost like working for a different company.

She or he will likely find that the way things are done, the viewpoints and the business priorities in his/her old subculture is quite different from the way they are in this new subculture. This employee will need time to adjust and get acclimated as if s/he were a brand new employee.

The big challenge for today’s company is not to collapse these subcultures into one, because that’s not possible. The goal is to create a broad, overarching business strategy that doesn’t crush these subcultures but pulls all of them together and ensures they can work as a unified team.

By doing so management can then capture the best of all three and focus them on the larger vision of the company.

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.


9 Comments on “Why It’s So Difficult to Really Change a Company Culture

  1. I think this is one of the first posts I have come across that actually outlines, why changing culture at a company is difficult as people bring different perspectives and objectives to the debate, based on their own situations. You simply just can’t “change” something without understanding what it is you are changing in the first place. What works well for one person, may not work well for another…..now scale that across a division of 10,000 people and see what happens.

  2. Thanks a good article. Have you experienced more sub-cultures than those listed above? FO example, I would imaging that sales related and HR related teams have culture of their own as well as well.

  3. Hi John —- I think Sales and HR would fit under Operations because they are driven by goals and tasks. Don’t know for sure but do know he doesn’t see a subculture for every different function in a company. Thanks.

  4. Jacque – While I agree that different parts of an organization operate differently, that phenomenon does not preclude an overarching culture for the entire organization. My experience has been that the difficulty in changing a company’s culture has nothing to do with ‘subcultures’, and everything to do with understanding and commitment. Cultures built on a strong platform of company values encourage behaviors that transcend any departmental or functional peculiarity. But they must be authentic, and the top executives need to fully embrace and ‘walk the walk’.

    Before any of that can happen an organization needs to first ‘get it’, recognizing the value; then commit to it; and then reinforce it. It’s not a sprint. It’s a fundamental paradigm shift that will take time to successfully execute.

    I’ve enjoyed your posts in the past, but on this subject I believe your emphasis is misguided.

  5. Hi John Bushfield —- I agree that there does need to be an overarching company-wide culture at the very broadest level —- values, etc. But values don’t address strategy.

    Just underneath it all lie the subcultures — the fact that people mostly due to occupation view business differently. If you let engineers control the company — i.e. Apple — you will see the focus on elegant machines. If financially geared people run the company you will see much more emphasis in squeezing costs and maximizing profits — a real laser focus. If operations people run the business you will see customer focus — getting the product out with quality, and realizing the impact of people on this.

    Yes at a very high level values are tops. But that’s not all there is to culture. Companies cannot run by values alone. There has to be a company strategy. And it is the strategy level I’m addressing. It takes a strong CEO to control that while recognizing each subculture.

  6. Thank you for the article. I had not thought about the various sub cultures. I would like to add that change management is difficult because it is done from the top down. Setting clear goals, expectations and providing feedback metrics to front line folks will result in quick change.

  7. While it would be expected that elements of culture are common across an organisation, part of the change strategy should be to define different audience needs within the organisation. Then HR/OD can apply established change principles for each distinct audience within the organisation and engineer solutions addressing their specific needs – avoid the trap of replicating interventions across each. It’s a bigger investment in planning, design and can challenge timeframes but the return is greater as is the reliability of sustainable change.

  8. I agree with the effort that’s often wasted attempting to change a culture. It’s not like implementing a new strategy, talent management approach or other improvement structure. There aren’t clear frameworks to specifically manage culture. A common culture foundation is needed so the sub-cultures have a “common core.” This common core needs to include a clear vision and how culture will play a role, values / expected behaviors, strategies / goals, measures, management systems, communication and motivation. Unfortunately, as you point out, most blanket attempts to change don’t work out and most don’t involve a comprehensive plan to engage the organization in the areas above. It’s not like all of these areas need generically addressed to build momentum. Momentum can start with a focus on one major performance goal or priority as a team. The harder part is engaging the sub-cultures so they feel a part of the journey.

  9. I believe organizational culture is more to do with the communication and interaction culture ingrained within. For instance, responding to someone’s emails promptly irrespective of their designation, appreciating or demonstrating gratitude, ensuring ownership/responsibility even after a request changes hands from one subculture to another. Everything boils down to a leadership culture where people are treated with respect.

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