When we think of medical symptoms, fever, chills, or nausea might come to mind. But what about business symptoms? These “problems”, more accurately described as symptoms, can drastically impact your organisation — and set it up for failure if you aren’t careful. And at the top of the symptom list? Culture.
When we visit a doctor with an illness, we don’t think twice about the conversation we have regarding the symptoms we are experiencing. We discuss the fever and chills we may have, but we depend on our physician to determine if we are dealing with influenza, COVID, or a bacterial infection of some type. Through a discussion of our presenting symptoms and a variety of diagnostic tests, doctors can quickly prescribe treatment to minimise our symptoms and remedy the root cause of our illness.
In business, however, we rarely talk about the symptoms we experience. Everything is seen as a problem. Within our business, we may experience internal conflict, accountability issues, profitability issues or even high employee turnover; yet we will view all these conditions as the problem that needs to be addressed. However, all these common business issues are actually symptoms. And symptoms share one defining characteristic: they are outcomes.
The bad practice of not distinguishing symptoms from actual problems is what keeps our businesses sick, perpetuates long-term inefficiency, and ultimately leads to even more problems. It is essential for any “business doctor” to recognise that only treating symptoms is a recipe for disaster.
Of all the business symptoms we experience regularly, there is one that is elevated above the rest and is almost always thought to be both the cause and the miracle cure for nearly any ailment. That symptom is culture.
Culture is the ultimate business symptom. The reasoning for this is that culture is an incredibly broad co-indicator of other problems and symptoms plaguing a business. People often refer to company cultures as being either good or bad. Perhaps we should view cultures differently: sick and healthy.
A company culture is, in many ways, exactly like the immune system of a human being. Sick cultures are vulnerable to small external influences in the same way as unhealthy people are more susceptible to viruses and infection.
When market externalities arrive in the form of declining economic conditions, pricing pressure, or competition, unhealthy cultures do not fend off these “viruses” as gracefully as a healthy company. Under stress, unhealthy cultures also produce additional side effects like conflict and misalignment, to name but a few. Unhealthy cultures tend to get sicker when stressed.
Healthy cultures, however, are like a human being with a strong immune response. Strong cultures have less conflict, more alignment, and more predictable expectations. In the same way as healthy people can run at peak operating tempo, organisations with healthy cultures can handle busier schedules and produce more results.
But immune systems and organisational cultures share a similar trait: you can’t easily replace them. In the grand scheme of things, you can only do things to influence your immune system to perform better. You can eat healthier, you can exercise, and you can supplement your diet with vitamins, but there is no way to directly alter your immune response. Even a vaccine, perhaps the most direct method of boosting your immune response, is still acting as an influence on a system you can’t directly change. Just like your immune system, the culture of an organisation is something you can only influence.
Compare culture to your personal reputation. You may be able to influence your reputation, but you do not own it. Your customers, your partners, and the market define your reputation. They are in charge. Culture is similar.
Culture is a manifestation of an organisation’s values. And while you can declare and define your values, culture doesn’t abide by them. Culture has a mind of its own. The firm hand on the wheel that sets forth a company’s culture is evident in everyday decisions. Where is capital invested? How is time devoted? Where are resources allocated? All of these are questions that beg decisions that further inform what an organisation deems most important. The values that survive the inevitable conflicts associated with scarce resources are the truest measure of what a company treasures most. It is these triumphant values that define the culture of a company.
Many organisations have a somewhat schizophrenic culture or no culture at all. Their decisions are inconsistent and even contradictory in some cases. This sets the conditions for a weak or non-existent culture. Many of these companies are described with eloquent words and firm devotions, but nobody truly believes them.
Organisations with strong cultures possess an inherent consistency in their decision-making. There is a pattern that governs daily decision-making from the very top of the organisation down to the lowest levels. Whether quality is job number 1 or maximising shareholder value is the guiding principle, consistency in decision-making is what creates a strong culture.
Some would argue that a good culture serves a virtuous purpose, whereas a bad culture is misaligned with a more unethical or unacceptable intent. This is a misleading way to evaluate organisational culture. “Good” or “bad” describes a value judgement on the culture, rather than the health or strength of that culture. It is always important to note that one person’s “good” culture can be another person’s prison. Judging the correctness of organisational culture is as foolish as dismissing musical genres based on taste. Consensus is a foolhardy pursuit.
Perhaps the ideal way to look at culture is to evaluate whether it is weak or strong. Weak cultures are inconsistent, difficult to predict, and therefore hard to trust. Strong cultures are the epitome of consistency, confidence, and trust. And the very strongest of cultures are forged when decisions are difficult and the stakes are high.
Will quality remain at the forefront of the decision-making process when quarterly profits may disappoint?
Culture is the ultimate reflection of an organisation’s values, which are determined by the decisions that are made on a daily basis.
Excerpted from CLARITY: Business Wisdom to Work Less and Achieve More (Ignite Press).
About the Author
Jim Vaselopulos is a C-level business advisor and executive coach with a proven record as a leader, strategist, rainmaker, and expert in new business development. He is the founder of Rafti Advisors, co-host of The Leadership Podcast and the author of CLARITY: Business Wisdom to Work Less and Achieve More.