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Can culture be changed?

We are drawn to positive cultures. When a sports team is performing well, you will find countless articles highlighting positive team culture. When a company is disrupting a market, look for Business Insider and other industry publications or news outlets to spotlight the wonderful culture being created. Even when you are looking for a new job, don't you often find yourself researching the various Best Places to Work rankings and awards to see where you would like to apply?

On the flip side, negative cultures can be just as much of a turn off and can come with massive consequences. In business, take your pick of articles and documentaries on bizarre and inappropriate cultures that doomed businesses like WeWork. In sports, look no further than the Houston Astros. Once a pillar of success and innovation, books are now being written about how a poor team and organizational culture led to one of baseball's biggest cheating scandals and a former GM who is too toxic to bring back into the sport. You can even see a mix of both worlds and varieties of terrible cultures playing out right now with the resignation of USC's Athletic Director.

Culture has the power to create a wildly successful organization that is the envy of an industry. However, culture can also crumble a once-proud company and banish the leaders who are at fault. With culture having such a profound effect on our daily lives, why is it that some companies seemingly have it figured out while others are left to play catch up in their industries or simply refuse to believe culture can be or should be changed at all?


As a student at Kellogg School of Management, there is not a day that goes by that I don't hear about the importance of culture - that you cannot truly win in business without a positive culture. While I still believe this to be true, I had not really questioned it much until I read a recent book by Evan Drellich, senior writer for The Athletic, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess. Drellich famously published a report alongside Ken Rosenthal that highlighted major cheating allegations against the Houston Astros, claiming that the team was electronically stealing pitchers' signs during their championship-winning season in 2017.

The book highlights the culture that was created in the Astros organization and how this culture not only allowed, but likely encouraged, employees to push past boundaries of fair play within the sport to find available advantages on and off the field. Ironically enough, the general manager of the team, Jeff Luhnow, was a Kellogg grad. Luhnow created a cut-throat culture of intimidation, cost cutting, and rule breaking that ultimately led to the Astros being viewed externally as the most innovative front office in baseball and to winning a championship in 2017. But wait, that doesn't make sense. How did the Astros find success with a culture that was viewed across the league during and after the fact to be toxic to women, those who would not push boundaries of innovation, and those who had the nerve to disagree with Luhnow?

This highlights an important caveat sometimes thrown about when individuals push back on the need for a positive workplace culture. Look at the Astros or any other famous company that succeeded despite the flaws in their culture. Is culture even that important? Or, perhaps, are we incorrectly defining success?

Let's assume for a moment that the Astros did not cheat (with all evidence pointing to them, along with several other teams at the time, cheating). The Astros had a terrible culture and won a championship. Does this make a good culture necessary for success? Not necessarily. However, is success something we only view in the short term? Maybe in sports that is the case. We often hear of fans clamoring for their teams to do anything "for just one championship." However, as we explored in my last post on moral hazards, wining at all costs in the short term can lead to disastrous consequences in the long term. In some ways, this is what we saw with the Astros. While MLB could not simply end the Astros as a franchise, it could (and did) suspend many of those involved, with individuals like Luhnow seemingly banished from the sport in present day. Countless employees were negatively affected by the Astros culture, were severely underpaid, were not given opportunities to grow and advance their careers, and fled the organization or the sport when given the chance. While the Astros continued their winning ways with new front office executives after this scandal and after its poor culture was really put on display, I doubt that everyone affected by Luhnow's methods deem their experiences as "successful".

So maybe the business world is not always like sports. While businesses are often focused on producing the exact financial results that will keep shareholders happy each quarter, these businesses also need to continue to survive, and executives and employees want to continue having a job to go to every day. So how do we get these businesses and leaders to see the value of culture? How can we leverage culture to truly win in both the short and long term?


Culture feels somewhat elusive at times, doesn't it? Maybe you have a set of company values or guiding principles (all of which I believe are incredibly important), but let's speak directly to those who think culture is something we just talk about that doesn't have any real impact on the business.

Let's begin with recruiting employees to your organization. Do you think your brand alone is enough to get people in the door or that a higher salary should entice the workers you want? Or are you simply ignoring the numerous articles highlighting Gen Z's focus on a company's DE&I practices, remote work policies, and prioritization on mental health? Maybe when it comes to recruiting, we need to put company culture first.

Let's next look at retention. If all of the above didn't showcase to you why culture is important to bring the right individuals in to your organization, do you think a poor culture is going to keep them there? To debunk this, look no further than Inc., whose Best Workplaces awards are constantly touted as a gold standard in who is getting culture right. Inc. recently highlighted a study that revealed that, "when comparing different kinds of organizational culture on retention, support-focused and achievement-focused cultural behaviors had significantly positive effects on retention, while power-focused culture had significantly negative effects on retention."

And if we really want to get the attention of leaders who don't recognize the importance of culture, let's just zero in on a company's bottom line. Forbes recently highlighted five ways company culture can directly affect your bottom line: employee turnover costs, increased revenue through inspired innovation, greater efficiency and productivity, better customer experience, and a shared company community and purpose that can keep an organization together and focused on the same goals.

Make no mistake about it, culture is key. As Peter Drucker, one of the most well-regarded thinkers on management, was alleged to say, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." As leaders of our teams and organizations, we have a responsibility to our team members to create the best culture we can for individual and collective needs. Oftentimes this requires changing an existing culture or evolving a culture as team needs evolve. However, as we know, change is difficult, making a culture change seem impossible. Let's explore three simple ways I've seen in my career that we can positively change team and company culture.


1. Culture is the worst behavior that you accept. My favorite author, John Amaechi, uses this quote to express why it is important to create accountability when setting and changing team culture. For instance, imagine that your company or team had a culture that you were not going to have any meetings on Fridays. Zero. 100% a focus period for you to move forward on tasks that you need to accomplish to end your week or to get a jump start on the next week. But what if someone really needs to meet with you and Friday is the only availability you both have? If you give in to this request and agree to the Friday meeting, then no meetings on Fridays isn't really your culture, is it? Your culture would be, "no meetings on Fridays except when you really need to meet with someone." That's hardly drawing a line to indicate your culture.

When you realize that you need to have a firm stance on what culture is and what you are not willing to accept in your culture, then you also realize the need for accountability. If someone doesn't follow the norms and expectations of your culture, do you let it slide? If so, then that is your culture - "always following the norms and expectations of our culture except when you don't, at which point we just look the other way." I've found that not only establishing what your expectation is, but how you will hold individuals and teams accountable for violations of this culture, are how you can establish what it means to truly live your culture, not just talk about it.

2. Measure the outcomes of your culture. Throughout 2022, my team spent significant time talking about what we wanted our culture to be. However, once we were all comfortable with what we said our team culture was, we really had no way to understand what that meant for team outcomes. This has led us to a process of tracking what it means to live our culture and if individuals still believe in the vision of that culture.

Our team recently partnered with a third party that provides a platform for growing and developing individual and team awareness, connectivity, and collaboration. Within this platform, we have an option to periodically send a survey to our team members to track their views of team outcomes, performance, and togetherness, i.e., sense of belonging, respect, leadership effectiveness, belief in team vision, and career development. This survey also allows individuals to provide narrative explanations on what we should start, stop, and continue doing as a team to remain effective.

Even if we create a culture that we are proud of and we have ways to ensure individuals interact within the expectations of that culture, we also need to realize that others' perceptions of the effects of the culture could be different than our own. It is important to keep a pulse on how our culture truly effects team members' lives every day.

3. Allow your culture to evolve as your team's needs evolve. Of course, this is easier said than done. Once we have established a culture, how can we be okay with letting the dynamics of that culture change?

Evolving a culture can be accomplished through inclusive team conversations, leveraging available organizational design frameworks that are effective within specific team cultures, and bringing in necessary business psychology to ensure you understand the root causes and desires of a culture change, but I'd like to focus on how our team has been able to update our culture using our survey tool mentioned above.

When our team leaders studied the team's survey results and narrative responses to changes that team members would like to see, we could have responded one of two ways. We could have a) buried our heads in the sand, refusing to change, and believing that our current team dynamics, design, and culture were sufficient - that we just needed our team members to see our point of view, or b) objectively reviewed the collective responses, provided an honest assessment about what we knew we needed to change and what we had completely overlooked within our team culture, and communicated to the team our willingness to evolve in the ways they needed in order to be in the best positions to succeed within our team and as professionals.

Sometimes the change was uncomfortable simply because it was new and foreign. Sometimes the change was draining because of new ways of operating that encouraged our leaders to be more present to our team members. But the change has been largely successful in its early stages because of our focus on creating psychological safety for our team members to honestly voice their opinions on our culture and because we created a safe-to-fail environment that acknowledges that while we may not get it perfect on our first try, we will not be deterred from changing if we are putting our team members first.


A mentor of mine once told me something very insightful about culture. That while there may be many organizations that claim to offer the same services, outcomes, or opportunities, go to the place where you have the best culture fit. At the end of the day, it's the people and culture of an organization that keep you coming back every day motivated and inspired.

Leaders need to evaluate their cultures to determine who they are really attracting and if they are meeting the needs and desires of their teams. If we are not creating the best culture for these goals, then it is on us to lead the change. If we don't, are we confident that our teams and organizations can truly win?


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