Why Isn’t HR Driving Company Culture?

The other day while with a client, I mentioned something about the organization’s culture, and the client grumpily replied “I’m sick of hearing about the culture!

I laughed and said, “Hmmm…. You’re the second CFO to tell me that! I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped — culture drives everything.”

The CFO apologized for being grumpy and said she did want to hear about culture, she really did (!), but I knew better. Generally speaking, those in authority aren’t keen on hearing how their company culture is hindering the organization. They just want things to work they way they want them to work.

Too bad.

“Culture” is more than a word

Why is it no one around here ever… ? How come it takes forever to … ? Why in the world didn’t anyone … ? How could someone think it’d be a good idea to … ?

More often than not, the answer to any of those questions will boil down to the workplace culture.

Still, some leaders act as though culture is just a word, or something completely separate from the way employees act. Nope.

Simply put, behaviors consistently tolerated, promoted, or enforced comprise company culture. If the mission statement, vision statement, or annual message from the CEO claims the company stands for values inconsistent with those exhibited on a regular basis, well, somebody’s mistaken about the company values. (Geez, who am I kidding? Somebody’s lying.)

It’s kinda like what my momma would have said if she’d been an HR pro: “Culture is as culture does, dear.

Culture chameleons

What’s more, most of us are culture chameleons.

If your last company wouldn’t allow managers to make a move without consulting HR, but the new company couldn’t care less about that, I’ll give you three weeks before you’re circumventing HR with the best of them.

If meetings at your previous company started late as a matter of course, but your new company doesn’t appreciate tardiness, you’ll soon figure it out and adjust as needed. (Uh … unless you’re a “special” bigwig who likes making people wait, in which case tolerance of your disrespect of other employees’ time tells another tale about the company culture.)

Anyway, you get what I’m saying.

Whether as a result of overt or subtle peer pressure, most of us will do as others are doing in the organization, because we tend to be shaped by the culture, not the other way around.

No wonder HR doesn’t drive culture. It can’t. (Not that it should. I mean, seriously, who is HR to decide company culture?)

Cultivating company culture

So is that it, then? We’re stuck with our cultures — even if we don’t like them?

Yeah, pretty much.

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That is, until someone with a lot of juice, stamina, and vision desires a change. Then things will change. Barring that, the most strong-willed people in the organization will dictate how things are done.

And for whatever it says about human nature, those people probably won’t be dictating for the good of the organization. At least, I’ve never seen it happen. Between the limitations of any single person’s wisdom and the dangers of too much power, something’s gonna get wonky somewhere. That’s why the most successful workplace cultures are carefully cultivated by a team of leaders.

The question isn’t “how come,” but “how to”

We all know the “how comes?” of a healthy corporate culture. In fact, I’m convinced we know it intuitively. We don’t really need studies — although they exist and are good to read — to know that functional, psychologically healthy companies will perform better than the alternative.

What’s harder is the “how to’s.” But actually, corporate change is no different from any other kind of change. First, someone in control has to want it.

And generally, that’s not HR.

  • http://www.michaeltoebe.com Michael

    “I’m sick of hearing about culture.”

    What is business? It’s people. It’s relationships. Sorry, but if people don’t want to hear about culture, they should probably not be in the workplace, and especially not be in any form of leadership, no matter their technical brilliance. Only the rare superstar without human understanding thrives.

    “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” is a quote that comes to mind.

    Your article wrap-up was very to the point and accurate – ” We don’t really need studies — although they exist and are good to read — to know that functional, psychologically healthy companies will perform better than the

    And “someone in control has to want it.”

    Those that do see the depth and width of value of culture (which needs to be more narrowly defined for people to understand it) and see to it that it is implemented with effectiveness will earn sustainable rewards.

    Michael Toebe
    High-Value Outcomes

  • Russ Minary

    Spot on, Crystal. I marvel at how many organizations can’t recognize this blind-spot, even after experiencing pain, expense and failure. One of two things must happen for them to change: a radical change in thinking, or a change in leadership if the leaders will not change their thinking.

  • Tim Kuppler

    I agree with many of your points and definitely love your passion. The most direct route to change is for the top to support it and lead by example.

    It doesn’t mean you are just stuck with it if you are not at the top. It depends on the organization. There are many where sub-cultures can be shifted and make a difference in spite of overall dysfunctions. A number of the best leaders of effective cultures learned as they moved through the ranks.

    Unfortunately far more top leaders did not learn about harnessing the power of culture at lower levels and they are too proud to ask for help in an area they desperately need to understand.

  • Dr. Joel Rod Polo

    Some of the points in this article revealed the necessity of an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist in Organizations.

  • RTW91569

    Because HR can’t drive ANYTHING. Does anyone remember the Harvard Business Review “Why Everyone Hates HR”? Might be time to re-read it.