When it comes to things like innovation or organizational change, culture is often one of those underlying factors that is regarded as crucial to success. As such, ‘culture’ has seldom been a more frequently discussed issue, with companies like Zappos heralded for their seemingly excellent culture.
The suggestion made by culture vultures is that it is an undeniable benefit to an organization, that the right culture is essential to success. Alas, a recent study from researchers at Kellogg Business School reminds us that culture can also be as negative an influence as it can positive.
When strong cultures backfire
The study suggests that culture helps to set expectations, so when employees are faced with uncertain situations, it’s more likely that everyone will be on the same page and respond in the same way.
Most of the time that’s a very valuable organizational trait to have, but in our fast moving world where adaptability and thought diversity are also highly sought after traits, a strong culture can be prone towards groupthink and missed opportunities. Central to getting the balance right is ‘theory of mind’ (which I’ve written about a few times).
“It means I’m trying to think about your mind,” the authors say. “I’m trying to put myself into your shoes, to think about what you would do. To do that, I use my own experience as a guide.”
Culture and the theory of mind
The authors draw the analogy with traveling to a foreign country where the cultural norms are unknown to you. For instance, communication may be subtle or direct, verbal or nonverbal and so on. The more you understand about that culture, the easier it is to communicate.
When you lack that understanding however, it can have a range of consequences, from relatively harmless such as missing the point of a joke to something more serious, such as failing to spot criminal activity.
They suggest that culture works the same way in our organizations. It establishes various rules of engagement, especially around communication. Think about how your boss communicates with their team for instance.
At its height, this can see employees able to predict each others thoughts and next moves, which can be crucial when crisis situations strike.
Alas, the researchers showed that as the culture of a group became stronger, members of that group became increasingly similar and uniform, which then subsequently provided even greater attraction for people just like that. Those who might provide a degree of thought diversity were put off however, and more inclined to go elsewhere.
In other words, the culture became increasingly homophilous, whereby employees gravitated to those just like themselves.
Innovation versus efficiency
This runs to the very heart of innovation. The researchers conclude that when homophily is high, this is ideal for situations where change is not important. So a stable economic environment where efficiency is key. Here, a strong culture is great.
When your environment is beset by constant change however, homophily is the last thing you want. The researchers suggest that excessive conformism is the worst thing for supporting organizational adaptability.
“That’s the story that people tell. Having people work together well and communicate effectively—it creates an entrenched culture. You’re not open to outside ideas,” they say. “There may be a better option, but I won’t [pursue] it because that isn’t how things are done around here.”
So when it comes to innovation, a weaker culture may promote the kind of dissent and thought diversity that will support the fresh ideas that will help an organization to adapt to change. Such an organization will be less wedded to how things are done there and more pliable to fresh approaches.
Food for thought the next time you discuss corporate culture.