Culture Is Still ‘‘a Thing’’: On Why It’s So, but Shouldn’t Be

By Ernst Graamans

The time has come to see culture in business settings in a new light – not as a ‘‘collective programming of the mind’’ but as an avenue to engage with human beings wholly, as naturally embodied and embedded in their organisational environment.

The way culture is often talked about in business settings is essentially strategic, as some-thing to be rolled out in order to meet an ulterior objective. If you’ve ever wondered why so many culture change programmes fail to point of grievance, it’s because ‘‘culture as strategy’’ curtains a fundamental core of human life. It may seem far-fetched at first, but the blind spot is that we primarily think of ourselves as having biological bodies – an idea ingrained into us by upbringing and educational system, but pass over the existential fact that we simultaneously are expressive bodies by which we consensually make sense of organisational life. It is managerial hubris to think the way people affectively attune behaviour amongst one another locally can be managed opportunely in a top-down fashion. I propose the rift between what a growing niche of organisational scholars have to say about this and what (some of the biggest) consultancies try to sell their clientele needs to be addressed explicitly and bridged constructively1.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” the saying goes. This memorable aphorism is attributed to a respected cultural elder of management, Peter Drucker. At executive business schools and in corporate management, it is frequently deployed to highlight the phenomenon that however well-thought-out a strategy may be, as soon as it hits the real world, thus starts affecting actual people, strategy becomes trivial. Boxing legend Mike Tyson indicated something similar when he said: “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.”

In case we lose sight of it and to prevent managerial blind spots, we must not let the notion of culture obscure the fact agentic human beings are the ones that resist strategy ; and yes, they sometimes resist to the point of strategically doing the exact opposite of top-down, formulated strategy.

In business contexts, when it comes to strategy execution, one of the barriers identified is the tenacious “way we [the people] do things around here”. The latter expression still is, in fact, an accepted, overarching working definition of organisational culture2. But as indicated above, in managerial discourse culture also became a propositional thing that has strategy for breakfast. Thingified notions can evoke reactions within particular discourses, but their effects cannot be extrapolated from the discourses in which these notions are employed to how other people make sense of their worlds. It is evident that culture does not really eat up strategy. However, moving away from obvious aphorisms to stating that culture somehow affects, influences or resists strategy is based on the same reification fallacy.

In case we lose sight of it and to prevent managerial blind spots, we must not let the notion of culture obscure the fact agentic human beings are the ones that resist strategy; and yes, they sometimes resist to the point of strategically doing the exact opposite of top-down, formulated strategy. Corporate managers, however, are massaged into the more abstract idea that ‘‘hidden forces’’ or ‘‘strong undercurrents’’ have the potential to obstruct strategy execution. Images are shown of an iceberg floating mostly under the ocean surface, representing culture, and only the visible ‘‘top of the iceberg’’ raising above the ocean surface, representing strategy3. ‘‘Behold the invisible force that eats up strategy!” is the message. Preemptively acting upon that invisible force, signified by the notion of culture, is fundamental to the successful execution of strategy, so is argued. Hence it must be controlled (culture audits) and forced into alignment (culture change programmes). Not always framed as explicitly and like so, but this seems to be the widespread managerial tenet of ‘‘culture as strategy,” an obscure sub-field of technocratic expertise.

organisational leadershipAn eminent scholar who left a lasting mark on the development of the idea of organisational culture — and who unfortunately passed away in early 2023—is Edgar H. Schein. He both popularised the idea as well as warned, in an open and frank manner, against its easy misuse. Although we are greatly indebted to him and he never proclaimed to have invented a holy grail approach to culture, he also unwillingly contributed to some of the confusion surrounding the idea. In his three-level model of culture, culture is not pitted against strategy, but encompasses it. However, strategy here also encompasses culture in a way inherent to the model itself, circularly. What follows is first a succinct explanation of Schein’s proposition, and then my unpacking of it.

At the core of culture, so Schein argues, lies the fundamental level of basic assumptions, “that determine perceptions, thought processes, feelings, and behavior”4. These are taken-for-granted, and thus often unconscious as self-evident ‘‘truths’’ are rarely questioned. The next, more superficial level is that of espoused values. These espoused values are generally thought of as encompassing vision and mission statements, company values, guidelines, charters, contracts as well as strategy. At the periphery of this model lies the level of tangible artifacts, which implies all that you can observe; from ways of working, to processes, to dress codes, to the design of workspaces.

Now comes the hang-up:

Basic assumptions, at the presumed core of culture, are explained as implicit ways of seeing and being in the world5. When these assumptions are made explicit in linguistic statements and then projected onto the future, we are, paradoxically and strangely enough, back to square one. And that’s because an articulated statement that expresses a (shared) way of being and seeing the world, and that is then projected unto the future is, in fact, a strategic vision statement pur sang. So, despite all the talk about culture, we are still operating within the realm of strategy. It seems as if we, Schein included, are trapped in a thought loop in which this time around—staying within the realm of aphorisms—strategy has eaten culture. This thought loop can be broken though, without needing to discard the heuristic model of Schein.

Whatever the reasons may be, in order to understand how certain happenings boil our blood, give us goosebumps or get under our skin, and to act upon it sensibly, corporate managers need to broaden their horizons.

Similar to a thought experiment of imagining talking fish having some difficulty elaborating on the meaning of water, in our human theorising about culture, the most obvious, taken-for-granted element of life is left entirely unseen or papered over for convenience’s sake. As an almost inevitable consequence, culture as talked about becomes strategy spoken differently. The missing element of human life hinted at is the obvious reality that every single human being experiences his or her world through a physical body with a socially attuned sensorium, i.e., the total of all one’s senses including the mind6,7. As long as this body is not theorised at the core, as most fundamental to meaning production and the stylisation of social behaviour, as knowing and feeling fully embodied, strategy will always eat culture. Granted, this aspect is not entirely absent in Scheinian or other traditional conceptualisations of organisational culture, but the problem lies in the fact that materiality, rhythms and embodied interactions (visible/tangible) are too often treated as by-products and positioned at the periphery of culture. The implications of this propositional turn-around are far-reaching, evident from the fact that many practitioners in the field of change, consultants and managers alike, seem to operate under the assumption that culture change is primarily a matter of sound arguments and clear communication. This is, however, only half the story.

Although management scholars have made strides in advocating the integration of embodied perspectives into organisational (culture) theory1,8,9,10,11 their ideas so far have not hit the mainstream of management practitioners. One of the reasons might be that these ideas pierce through the tempting illusion of the existence of a “managerially-led unitary and unique culture”12, and thereby pose a threat to the earning models of some powerful consultancies1. Another conceivable reason could be that taking such an approach compels those naturally inclined to top-down management styles to suddenly engage with the sensuousness of organisational life and to participate more actively, to use another metaphor, in the embodied dance of meaning creation. Whatever the reasons may be, in order to understand how certain happenings boil our blood, give us goosebumps or get under our skin, and to act upon it sensibly, corporate managers need to broaden their horizons. This may feel risky, but is nonetheless of vital importance if we are earnest about tackling contemporary issues such as racism, ageism and genderism. These issues clearly have to do, not with only having biological bodies, but also with being expressive bodies of joint action and sensemaking1,7,13. After all, only if we are able to contextualise abstract demographics – that usefully provide us with the numbers – can we start working towards change that is sustainable.

In my own research, whether within particular business contexts14,15 or beyond – on changing culturally embedded practices within indigenous communities16—again and again I come to the same conclusion that we need to leave behind the outdated idea that culture is something like —to phrase it in Hofstede’s terminology17—“the collective programming of the mind.” A truly holistic approach to culture change entails being able to engage with human beings wholly, as naturally embodied and embedded in their (organisational) environment.

Bridging the gap for management practitioners

  • Neither tribute culture nor blame culture. Culture is never the culprit.
  • Instead, examine how the notion of culture is strategically deployed. Oftentimes, the notion is used metaphorically to evoke a specific emotion, or as a label or excuse to paper over an underlying issue. In such cases, it is better to address the underlying issue concerning its strategic (mis)use, than to roll out a culture change programme. Programmes based on false premises are doomed to fail.
  • Learn to observe with an attitude of suspended judgement. When an organisational happening boils people’s blood, gives them goosebumps or gets under their skin it is an indication that something ‘‘real’’ is at stake that involves them deeply, but at the same time is hard to put into words. Call it culture, if you will, but don’t just stop there. Observe with empathetic curiosity what happens in between the people who have a stake in the happening1,18.
  • From the latter observations, conducted with empathetic curiosity, arise new opportunities for change, previously unthinkable, and that resonate at a more experience-near, embodied level.

organisational environment

When these opportunities for change do not reveal themselves, it might be humbling for managers and consultants alike to discover that the limits of changeability have been reached. To know how expressive bodies interact naturally, healthy and happily, is also to know when to stop managing employees to become more productive than they already are. In case management proceeds, imposing its will beyond these boundaries, real people will inevitably ‘‘eat strategy for breakfast’’. As hinted at in the opening paragraph of this paper, there should be no room for managerial hubris.

About the Author

Ernst GraamansDr. Ernst Patrick Graamans is an assistant professor of Culture & Leadership at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). Ernst wrote his PhD dissertation entitled Beyond the Idea of Culture at the VU School of Business and Economics and led field research on ways to encourage people to abandon the culturally embedded practice of girl circumcision among the Maasai and Samburu communities in Kenya. From 2012 to 2020, Ernst worked for a consultancy firm that advises medium to large, profit and not-for-profit organisations at the board level on strategy, culture and change management.

References

  1. Graamans, E., ten Have, W., & ten Have, S. (2021). Against the Current: Cultural Psychology and Culture Change Management. Culture & Psychology, 27(2), 325-343. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354067X21993789
  2. Deal, T. E., & Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Addison-Wesley. (p. 125)
  3. Inspired by Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor. Beyond Culture. Anchor.
  4. Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational Culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109–119. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.45.2.109 (p. 112)
  5. Schein, E. H. (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. Jossey-Bass.
  6. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Rev. ed.). Shambala Publications.
  7. Voestermans, P., & Verheggen, T. (2013). Culture as Embodiment: The Social Tuning of Behavior. John Wiley & Sons.
  8. Küpers, W. (2015). Phenomenology of the Embodied Organization: The Contribution of Merleau-Ponty for Organizational Studies and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan
  9. Sandberg, J., & Tsoukas, H. (2020). Sensemaking Reconsidered: Towards a Broader Understanding through Phenomenology. Organization Theory, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2631787719879937
  10. White D. G. (2017). Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations. Taylor & Francis Limited.
  11. Wright, A. (2019). Embodied Organizational Routines: Explicating a Practice Understanding. Journal of Management Inquiry, 28(2), 153–165. https://doi.org/10.1177/1056492617713717
  12. Alvesson M. (2013). Understanding Organizational Culture. Sage Publications. (p. 179)
  13. Fromm, E. (2021). To Have or to Be? Bloomsbury Publishing. (Original work published 1976)
  14. Graamans, E., Aij, K., Vonk, A., & ten Have, W. (2020). Case Study: Examining Failure in Change Management. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 33(2), 319-330. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-06-2019-0204
  15. Strengers, J., Mutsaers, L., van Rossum, L., & Graamans, E. (2022). The Organizational Culture of Scale-ups and Performance. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 35(8), 115-130. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-09-2021-0268
  16. Graamans, E., Ofware, P., Nguura, P., Smet, E., & ten Have, W. (2019). Understanding Different Positions on Female Genital Cutting among Maasai and Samburu Communities in Kenya: A Cultural Psychological Perspective. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 21(1), 79-94. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2018.1449890
  17. Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values. Sage. (p. 25)
  18. Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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