Why You Must Manage Culture – or Face the Tragic Consequences

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Culture is clearly a powerful force, but it’s unfortunately being used as an excuse for disasters ranging from the banking crisis five years ago to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and even the locker room hazing crisis of the Miami Dolphins.

If culture is a contributing cause to so many disasters then it’s especially concerning considering the recent Booz & Company survey where 96 percent of respondents felt culture change was needed in their organization and 51 percent felt a major culture overhaul was needed.

What crisis is next and could there be a disaster looming in your organization?

The impact of culture in the San Francisco plane crash

Culture was recently raised in an interesting Anderson Cooper CNN interview of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg about the current NTSB probe into the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in July 6. Three people were killed in the crash and over 200 were injured. They discussed key points about the “cockpit culture” that may have contributed to the disaster including:

  • Not noticing they were going too slow until right before impact even though a co-pilot warned three times that the plane was dropping too fast.
  • Challenging the pilot may have been considered disrespectful.
  • Pilots would not wear sunglasses, even if blinded, because it would be “impolite.”
  • No member of a professional crew intervened until seconds before impact.

Sully gave some good advice about the need to widen the investigation to fully understand the cultural issues in the organization and their society. He emphasized the need to investigate how pilots are trained but he stopped short of getting at the heart of these issues.


Leaders MUST manage their culture

Leaders must take the steps to understand and effectively manage their culture. I am all for building an environment where shared accountability and ownership exists but the ultimate responsibility and accountability rests with leaders at all levels.

I am incredibly frustrated with leaders that say culture work can’t fit in their priorities at the moment due to a host of different reasons: financial turnaround, major system transition, personnel changes, reorganizations, new strategies, etc.

These responses show that many leaders either don’t understand the power of culture to influence every major priority or they are unwilling to take the first step because they don’t know how to effectively manage culture with confidence. Culture work isn’t about preventing disasters but building a high-performance culture that delivers sustainable results for the organization and every employee involved.

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Don’t think you are off the hook if you aren’t a top leader. The best practices to build an effective culture work in every sub-group and team. Waiting for someone else to take action is a sure way to continue to reinforce your present culture and any flaws that may exist in your department, location, or even your cockpit.

Do people act on “what they know?”

The co-pilot from the Asiana flight told investigators he “prepared in his mind to recommend something” to the two more-senior pilots at the controls, “but he did not.”

Think about whether people in your organization hesitate or neglect to proactively take the action you need due to some aspect of fear or uncertainty in your culture? I believe one characteristic of an effective culture is that “people act on what they know.” This simple goal is often very hard to achieve and the consequences can be tragic.

Is culture management one of your top priorities? Why do many leaders defer action on their culture and what could be done to create a sense of urgency about the need to manage culture effectively?

A version of this post was originally published on the RoundPegg blog.

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting. Contact him at Tim.Kuppler@HumanSynergistics.com.


4 Comments on “Why You Must Manage Culture – or Face the Tragic Consequences

  1. I’m reminded of the 1997 Korean Air Flight 801 crash at A.B. Won Guam airport. The NTSB cited the Captain for failure to adequately brief and execute the non-precision approach and the first officer’s and flight engineer’s failure to effectively monitor and cross-check the captain’s execution of the approach. Also cited was Korean Air’s inadequate flight training. What is not cited and a contributing factor is the Korean culture where subordinates are loathe to challenge seniors. I personally am convinced that the Korean and cockpit crew culture was a contributing factor in this unfortunately chain of events. Every accident has a series of events or chain links that contribute to the crash. It appears we’re not learning from our past mistakes with the Asiana crash

    1. Thank you Ron. I saw a number of articles about the Korean airlines / national culture when researching this post. I completely agree with your point about there being a series of events or chain links that contribute to a crash or any other major disaster. It’s easier for some to address training or other procedural changes instead of going after the root causes of culture and leadership.

  2. The recent Booz & Company survey where 96 percent of respondents felt culture change was needed in their organization and 51 percent felt a major culture overhaul was needed.

    Did the above survey define ‘culture’? I believe most people have their own definition of ‘culture’ just as they do of ‘love’.

    For the author to suggest, “Culture work isn’t about preventing disasters but building a high-performance culture that delivers sustainable results for the organization and every employee involved.” seems to be more about ‘managing performance’ rather than ‘managing culture’

    Ask yourself this question: “What is my company culture like?”
    If you are having problems answering this, are you going to ask your manager?

    I’m sure a lot of them would have an answer for you, but will it be accurate? And would you agree with it.

    Is ‘corporate culture’ only as complicated and, at the same time, as simple as the
    president/CEO and his ‘vision’ of how people should be treated? Or is it so fragile that it can be changed with the introduction of a new company policy on overtime pay? Is it having people with the same mind-set?

    As a manager, you can influence the culture in your department, your team or unit in a variety of different ways. The primary way, of course, is by your behavior. And your behavior is demonstrated by the choices you make. Your choices are tied into your personal beliefs, values and the assumptions you have made about a situation.

    So, if you want to change the culture of your department, do you change
    processes, systems or people?

    Who said it was ever going to be easy?

  3. Honestly, I found this article biased toward Korean culture and Asian culture in general . Have Americans given thought to what the world thought about them when it caused and imposed on the rest of the globe the financial collapse in 2008? Haven’t we noticed how we have veered off the course of how we used to define ourselves as Americans with the callousness shown to the poor, the long-term unemployed, increasing number of children mired in poverty, etc. How about our complicity at the corporate level (those guys too big to fail) who paid out record corporate fines this year only to see Jamie Dimon get an $8 million raise when his company was one of the biggest perpetrators. Or check out the CSR statements of the offenders and you will find stellar wording of social responsibility completely that was uncoupled from its actions. J & J is a classic example. Don’t expect to see any change in corporate culture here, for the fines are just the price of doing business: business as normal. And pertaining to air disasters, human error accounts for airplanes crashes too.A caveat: I did not listen to Captain Sully’s interview because I feel too much for the people who lost their loved ones in this recent tragedy and that this article does not do them a service.

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