Denise Lee Yohn Asks, “Who Owns Culture?”

  • By deniseleeyohn
  • in
  • on September 17, 2020

As originally published by Denise Lee Yohn on Linkedin.

A couple of people have recently posed to me the question, “Who owns culture in an organization?”

On the one hand, it seems that everyone owns the culture – meaning, everyone plays a role in manifesting it. But on the other hand, the adage “if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible” applies, because someone(s) need to be accountable for the culture.

The way I’ve come to think and talk about it goes like this: The leaders of an organization are responsible for identifying the desired culture and everyone in the organization is responsible for cultivating it. The leaders must determine the kind of culture the company needs to achieve its goals, since they are in the best position to develop that vision and understand what it will take to get there. And then they must cultivate that culture through communication and role-modeling, as well as the design and management of the organization. Everyone else in the organization must align their attitudes and actions with the desired culture, nurturing and reinforcing it in their scope of work.

But that is not to say that people within an organization shouldn’t influence the definition or understanding of the desire culture. I’ve heard from many people in non-leadership roles who have far more enlightened perspectives not only on the current state of the culture at their companies, but also how it needs to change and how to achieve the changes. Plus a couple of pieces I’ve come across recently shed light on the role of employees in driving culture.

First, a paper recently published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review observes, “Employees often know a great deal about how to navigate their organization’s culture and are very savvy at using aspects of it to introduce new issues or to generate fundamental change.” The paper, “Organizational Culture as a Tool for Change” (subscription required), goes on to reframe culture, saying that, “In an effort to acknowledge culture’s pervasiveness and fluidity, management and organizational scholars are now regarding organizational culture as composed of an open, varied, and malleable ‘toolkit’ of resources” (emphasis mine).

The authors describe one example of how the employees at an athletic-apparel company with a culture strongly oriented toward innovation for athletic performance initiated an effort to make sustainability an organizational priority. By demonstrating the potential for sustainability criteria to connect with the company’s commitment to innovation, employees “successfully instigated a significant internal shift.”

The paper argues that culture is less an “internal code” that is established and entrenched by organizational leaders and is more something persists through the distributed actions of all people in the organization. Employees draw from the cultural toolkit as they see fit, and in doing so, can shift the culture either intentionally or inadvertently. The authors conclude, “Culture is expressed and reified through practice; it is not merely established by proclamation.”

The second piece that caught my attention recently is an article by Andrew Hill from the Financial Times, “How remote staff will build a new corporate culture.” The article observes that, given how many employees are working remotely because of the pandemic, “Keeping even long-serving staff aligned with the corporate mission will become harder, the longer they spend away from the workplace.”

It reports that remote working has loosened the physical connections between employee and employer, and staff now has the license to make connections at their own discretion. The article describes how employees at McKinsey organized a sing-a-long (yes, at McKinsey) and how university professors, in a departure from the hard-nosed competitive cultures that usually exist between academic institutions, spontaneously shared wisdom about online teaching to aid their peers in adjusting to remote classroom settings.

Hill writes, “Organisations that were always good at shaping the way their employees work and behave — McKinsey, AB InBev, and others — will probably find that the shift to hybrid work helps them to reinforce their strong cultures.” Other companies with weaker cultures may find that #WFH causes them to fall apart. And, he concludes, “All companies are likely to discover, that often it will be the staff who set the norms of the new working culture, rather than the CEO.”

So, perhaps “who owns culture” is not the right question to begin with. Ownership implies possession and, if culture is malleable and fluid as these pieces suggest, it doesn’t seem like anyone can own it. But accountability may be a more appropriate emphasis. Accountability can be both given and taken – and when it comes to organizational culture, it should given and taken by different people in different roles in different ways.

What do you think? I expect many of you have a point of view on this topic, so I’m looking forward to hearing your comments.

***

More resources from Denise on brand + culture:

Leave a Reply

PUBLISHED BY deniseleeyohn

View all posts by deniseleeyohn

Related Posts

CISO

Botnet Attacks on the Rise: Companies to Invest Heavily in API Security

Recently, companies are beginning to shift to the use of the cloud and expose functionality via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Cybercriminals have been taking this new exposed entry to their advantage as new technologies often lack the proper security. With APIs becoming more commonly used in companies, cybercriminals have been using Botnets to carry out […]

CMO , Retail

How Businesses Can Begin to Change the Conversation

Contributed by [24]7.ai Over the years, we’ve spoken with countless businesses across multiple industries. And every time we strike up a conversation, we ask a lot of questions, because we’re constantly on the lookout for new ways we can use technology to improve the customer experience. During these conversations, however, we began to notice a […]

CISO

Cybersecurity Leader, John Felker, Keynotes Our August Assembly!

On August 17th, The Millennium Alliance Transformational CISO Virtual Assembly kicks off with a keynote address from John Felker, Former Assistant Director for Integrated Operations, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security. Felker is a proven innovator in the cybersecurity space and is notably recognized for his work leading the […]

#MillenniumLive , Healthcare

#MillenniumLive The COVID-19 Shift to Telehealth

Our thought leader, Michele Chulick, the former President & CEO of Wyoming Medical Center, talks about her career journey, leading the successful affiliation between WMC and Banner Health, and the challenges leading a major health system during the pandemic in this weeks #MillenniumLive. Chulick touches on the rapid shift from in-person healthcare to telehealth during […]

Lovin’ Digital Diary?

Premium content to our readers interested in all things business.

Check Us Out!

Millennium Membership offers Fortune 1000 C-Level executives, leading public sector/government officials, and thought leaders across a variety of disciplines unique and exclusive opportunities to meet their peers, understand industry developments, and receive introductions to new technology and service advancements to help grow their career and overall company value.

About Millenium Alliance Next

About Digital Diary

Created to provide premium content to our readers interested in all things business.

Launched in 2017, Digital Diary was created to provide premium content to our readers interested in all things business. With our blogs catered to deliver the top news stories, trends, and interviews from across all industries.

Read all story Next

Millennium Alliance Membership

Learn More Next

What does it mean to be a Millennium Member? In the midst of the constant disruption across all industries, our members are given the tools they need to digitally transform their organizations and become the best leaders they can be. Millennium Members are provided the exclusive opportunity to attend our 40+ intimate in person and virtual Assemblies, take part in industry-leading Executive Education sessions conducted by the nation’s leading academic institutions, business leaders, and technology providers and receive industry leading content through our Digital Diary Platform as well as the rapidly growing #MillenniumLive Podcast Series.