Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

2 thoughts on “Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

  1. Great post, Mark. Thanks for sharing it.

    Your use of ‘systems’ here may cause some to get stuck, if they (like I did) go to software applications by default. A broader view which includes processes and methods helps some, as it speaks more to how work gets done. So the work ethic comes into play, and I can see how culture is impacted.

    But if you then expand ‘systems’ to include human mindset, motivations and behaviors, then I absolutely agree that these factors influence culture. Then it gets interesting, because culture will, over time, reflect back upon and influence the prevailing mindset, motivations and behaviors in the org. It’s a case of circular impacts, not linear ones. It’s not cause and effect in the classic sense, but a web of causal factors. Drucker called it amporphous. It’s the stuff of complexity. And that’s why it’s often said that culture is as an emergent property of an organization. It can’t be fully predicted by the sum of the parts, or even its systems, however you define them. But we can learn more about culture, and how it is influenced by their (mostly human) systems. And as we’ve discussed at #orgdna, systems thinking gives us some tools to understand key flows.

    OD academics haven’t been silent on all this. Ed Schein has had much to say on layered influences that I touch on above. And Charles Handy developed 4 excellent archetypes for organization structure. Your insights are well aligned with their theoretical foundations. You’ve helped put their abstractions into a practical, 21st century context. Have a look at for more on the above.

    Discussing culture today, I’d want to focus, at a minimum, on two key factors: (1) how scale influences the shape, tenor and forces of culture over time and (2) how leaders can hope to influence culture with their choices and their actions.

    I believe there is much to be learned and still much to be done wrt culture in organizations, even (if not especially) the smaller orgs, where there is a greater chance to have direct influence.

    More soon. Again, great ideas here. I hope we continue to discuss/expand.


  2. Thank you for your thoughts. Not sure why you call some organizational cultures poor. Poor in regards to what? Apologies, if I go off-target with my reply.

    In addition to the “cultural adaptation” dynamic you describe I would add that organizations always have some form of structuring communication. It is what actually makes them organizations and successful in solving complex problems.

    Alive and thriving organizations found adequate ways of organizing (for their respective environments). High specialization and standardization and re-integration via hierarchy – works great for many companies. This might work less well for companies who want / need to be highly innovative, fast etc.

    Communication centered around a founder is only adequate for organizations of little complexity (and is actually VERY hierarchical.) Beyond 50+ people (and / or multiple products, multiple markets) organizations need to be able to process many more things in parallel. After all, the founder or the coffee table conversation can only have one conversation at a time. And that is no longer enough to process all the decisions the organization requires.

    Some companies go for structuring communication along functional lines, others along business segments, others along processes etc. There are pros and cons for each.

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