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Why most corporate culture programs fail

Unless your company acts as a single tribe, which most companies don’t, you don’t have a single corporate culture. Therein lies the problem with most corporate culture initiatives — they start from the wrong premise that companies are people and that they therefore can have one culture. In reality, most companies have multiple cultures which results in having competitive behavior in the wrong place — within their corporate walls instead of outside in the marketplace.

So what is going on here?

As Edward O. Wilson said in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth, “People must have tribes. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.” Tribes have cultures, organizations don’t — unless they are one tribe. Most organizations have many tribes — you may have a developer tribe, a sales tribe, multiple customer service tribes, a cost conscious tribe, an innovator tribe, a middle management tribe, or a tribe of Belgian-American wine drinkers. Having multiple tribes means that you have multiple cultures. Tribes share common systems of beliefs and values, they have their own language, their own rituals, and their own leaders — who may in fact have no place on your management org chart. Having multiple tribes also means that you have many “us vs. them” or “insider vs. outsider” feelings, something that always happen among tribes.

And that is where the internal competition comes from…a generally unhealthy corporate state of affairs if you are competing against a competitor which behaves like a unified tribe and which can channel all their energy to compete in the marketplace or to achieve a “change the world” type goal.

So what does that mean?

For starters, most traditional corporate culture change management programs fail…since most of them start with the assumption that organizations have a culture. The other implication is that by having multiple tribes, and in some cases mutually incompatible tribes, you may waste a lot of energy on infighting instead of innovating and competing in the marketplace.

There are ways to analyze corporate tribal cultures properly, and there are also ways to align them more closely with corporate innovation and collaboration strategies, but more on that later.

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