Ten Culture Fallacies We Must Stop (Part1)

How often has the term “culture” been mentioned in your business in the last 72 hours?

How often has Peter Drucker’s “Culture Eats Strategy” meme popped up in your LinkedIn feed?

I‘m willing to bet the answer is “frequently” or maybe even “too bloody often”

Coupled with terms like Digital Transformation, automation, the future of work, the gig economy and change management, culture is a white hot topic that business leaders can fervently debate and discuss but they can no longer dismiss.

Additionally, with an armada of armchair experts opining on the topic, it is not surprising that certain perspectives and opinions have also entered the debate.

Some opinions are stated with unambiguous zealotry in channels like LinkedIn. Perhaps more worryingly, the very executives tasked with addressing the culture topic hold some very strong opinions too.

Here are ten that I’ve seen, discussed and debated.

1) You Can Magically Create A “Innovation”, “Entrepreneur”, “Risk” Culture

It has become increasingly popular for organizations to say they need to build an “innovation” culture or a “creativity” culture or some other bright shiny modifier of their culture.

Truth is you already have a culture.

From the moment your organization had more than one employee, it began to nurture a set of shared behaviours – a culture - that defined how you work together.

Ask yourself - Does your current environment allow people to fail fast without negative consequences? Do you embrace challenging new approaches to your business model from within – regardless of the tenure or rank of the source? What is your organization’s realattitude to “risk”?

If your answer was “no” to the examples above, then you’re not building an innovation, creative or entrepreneurial culture. It is the behaviours you support, the behaviours you tacitly or unconsciously reward that set the tone.

You might enjoy Rob Shelton’s article in strategy&business where he gives some great examples of the behaviours that do begin to build an innovation culture.

2) You Can Copy A Culture

With all the ink spilt on the hiring practices at Google, the office environment at Apple or the Holocracy experiment at Zappos, it can be enticing to propose that your organization execute the culture playbook of those organizations and similar fame and fortune will inevitably occur.


Culture is a shared experience built from internal adaptation to external circumstances. As such, each of these cultures has been uniquely built from surviving numerous threats to their survival over the years.

Each individual culture has learnt which specific behaviours to keep, which one’s to modify or end, in order to succeed under the very special set of circumstances and market conditions in which they play.

Unless your organization is literally a carbon copy of their market sector, organizational history, leadership attitudes and experience, partner and supplier network, union and employee relationships, and the myriad of other factors that have created those organizations, you’re never going to copy their culture.

At best, look to these cultures for inspiration but build your own playbook.

3) Foosball tables, plaques on the wall and “Beercart Friday’s” Are Your Culture

Most organizations still fall prey to the misperception that their open plan collaboration pods, hot desking or remote working policy, funky new decor and the “people-2-foosball table density” are indicative of their open and transparent culture.

As Tim Kuppler of Culture University so eloquently states it, those are “climate” not Culture. 

Renowned culture academic Edgar Schein goes further by describing the three layers of culture – Artifacts, Espoused Values and Basic Assumptions.

In Schein’s opinion, the layer that you can see, feel, hear, touch is the Artifact layer. But that’s not your Culture. That’s not the layer that governs how people in an organization consciously – and unconsciously – make decisions. That layer is the deepest layer, the layer unseen by outsiders and often unrecognized by employees themselves – the Basic Assumptions layer.

If you’re genuinely interested in understanding what drives an organizational culture, you need to look further than the gleaming artifacts you see when you go into an organization. You need to look deeper than the words and values enshrined on the walls or emblazoned on laminated cards. You need to get to the Basic Assumption level – where the forces that drive decision-making and attitudes in an organization reside. That’s the real Culture.

4) Employee Engagement Is An Objective

If you’re a culture practitioner – or just a human being with any degree of empathy – the annual Gallup Employee Engagement Report is a sobering read.

The most depressing stat being the 87% of employees globally who are not engaged in their role. That is a tremendous amount of intellect, energy and passion that isn’t being applied to an organization. Couple the 87% stat with findings that show that highly-engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings and the critical importance of employee engagement becomes very stark.

Unfortunately this typically leads to a binary, knee-jerk “raise employee engagement at all costs” mantra.

Employee engagement is an outcome. It is not an objective. 

Like the other classic business imperative – profit – it is an outcome from running your organization effectively and efficiently.

If you want to tackle low employee engagement, you need to intimately understand your current culture (which few organizations are prepared to do) and then tackle the issues you uncover. Only then can you begin to create a culture where employees are clear on their roles, clear on how they can contribute, clear on the behaviours the organization rewards. Then, and only then, will engagement improve.

5) Culture is a “Feel Good” Exercise With No Business Impact

Perhaps not an opinion stated openly anymore but there’s certainly skepticism from many executives that investment in culture ever translates directly to business improvement. Considering that culture deals with the messy, irrational, emotional realities of human beings, it perhaps isn’t surprising that some folks may see this as a warm and fuzzy feel-good investment.

Consider for a moment if these elements have a direct business impact.

Turnover and Employee retention

Cost of hiring and training

Inter-departmental silos or open conflict

Employee absenteeism

Inability to change (or innovate) to disruptions in the market

Employees “just do their job” or “show little initiative”

These are symptoms of a culture that is not operating effectively. A culture where the artifacts, values and basic assumptions (see point 3 above) are out of sync.

Now consider what your organization might look like if the exact inverse of these situations were the norm.

Personally, and this is a view held by many culture experts, I believe that culture is a genuine source of competitive advantage in today’s economy. The ability to have your employees bring their full energy, intellect, passion, curiosity and desire to participate to your organization is the ultimate business impact.

I’ll be publishing the final 5 culture fallacies in another post next week.

Included in that post will be some of my other favourite fallacies.

  • Why Peter Drucker’s culture meme should be banned.

  • Culture is HR’s responsibility

  • Culture is only for employees and has no external impact

  • It takes too long to change culture

  • Changing your culture is possible (always a polarizing one)

Here’s my question – what fallacies do you feel need to be put to bed immediately?

What are some of the culture fallacies or misperceptions you read about – or hear in your organization?

I’d love to get them out in the open and vanquished once and for all.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below Dear Reader.