There are many examples of well-defined organizational cultures that bring significant clarity to brands, values, and behavioral expectations. There are also examples of organizations where the culture has been defined extremely well, but where this has in fact led to stagnation and homogeneity rather than rich diversity.
Edgar Schein points out in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership that, “culture is deep, wide and complex. Leaders should avoid the temptation to stereotype organizational phenomena in terms of one or two salient dimensions, and they should be sensitive to the power they have to influence the groups with which they work.”
This specific case study illustrates this:
A successful financial services company was facing the challenge of diversifying its products to remain competitive. The company was over 100 years old and had a deeply embedded culture of financial rigor (thankfully!), pragmatic decision-making, and pride in robust legacy products. The challenge of innovating and diversifying did not come easily to the senior leadership team. A comprehensive profiling of this senior team revealed some of the reasons why. For example, using the Myers Briggs profiling framework, everyone was an ST. For those unfamiliar with this vernacular, everyone was focused on solid facts and data, thoroughly analyzed in consistent and logical ways. Not a bad thing for a financial services company one might think! But there was very little customer understanding, creativity, interest in trends, or inspiration. The leadership group had become so consistent in their narrow cultural and behavioral alignment, that they had squeezed out diversity and innovation.
Bob Garratt, in his book The Cultural Contexts, cites Argenti when he suggests the main reasons for corporate collapse are, “too many people of the same sex, age, education, and nationality at the top, with too little authentic information about the changing environment, and few managerial information systems.” Given that this insight is now over 40 years old, shouldn’t lessons have been learned?
Organizations who narrow their focus on cultural imperatives should also be mindful that cultural diversity can expand and not threaten the success of their business. Defining a differentiating culture does not mean that diversity is jettisoned. Culture is often about behavioral norms and not the rich tapestry of a diverse workforce. A well-known insurance company conducts an employee engagement survey every year. Comments such as, “run by old white men”, should cause the company to consider deeply the demographics of the senior leadership team and the implications for its culture.
The challenge of creating inclusive cultures that are also distinctive, can also be seen in organizations such as churches. A large suburban church defined by its all white and all male senior leadership team, faces a challenge of diversity. Organizations such as this can develop over many years with leaders who tend to see things in a similar way. Just by hiring a senior leader who may have a different background, doesn’t necessarily change the culture. In fact, changes arising from an external hire can be very unauthentic if not integrated in a very careful way. It is important to grow an organization authentically, develop leaders from a diverse spectrum, and foster a risk-comfortable environment of constantly growing a culture dynamically.
Cultures that embrace diversity are more likely to lead to long-term success and fulfilment than those that hold onto a narrow set of cultural principles.