There is no neutral workplace culture

Talk about workplace culture is always a topic in Organizational Development circles, which is no surprise, given its importance. I hear about it from every angle; whether it’s news stories about giant corporations, talking with former colleagues and working with my clients.  Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of the term ‘workplace culture’ because I think it’s a little vague (by which I mean that I don’t necessarily think we all meant the same thing when we say it) but I am absolutely convinced that the work environment is set up to either encourage or discourage certain behaviors and that there is no neutral!  This is important because of the three groups most impacted by workplace culture: Leadership, Employees, and Customers; in other words, everybody. So what is this elusive ‘culture’, who cares, and how do you get a good one?


Early in my Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) consulting days, we referred to Setting Conditions when describing what most people call culture. Because the laws of behavior are pretty much immutable, it’s always the case that behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, behaviors that are punished are extinguished and behaviors that receive no consequence are gradually extinguished. (There is a huge, secondary body of knowledge concerning rewards and the best way to reinforce different behaviors, but that’s for another day.) Part of the OBM process includes a detailed analysis of which behaviors are currently being positively reinforced, which are being punished and which are being ignored.  The true value in the OBM analysis lies in discovering not only what behaviors are being intentionally rewarded and punished, but also in what are being unintentionally rewarded or punished. 

Suffice it to say, it’s pretty easy to do a setting condition analysis on an organization. You simply observe the company for a certain time period and document what you see. Creative solutions? Clock-watching? Gossip? Sabotage? Longevity? Extra-role responsibility? Whatever you are seeing, you can be reasonably confident that those are the behaviors that are currently being rewarded (or not being punished).  I got to be pretty good at assessing and documenting the setting conditions based on observation an interviewing. The question then becomes ‘who cares’?

The impact of culture is so vast, a better question might be ‘who doesn’t care’?

·      For leadership, your culture impacts your efficiency, profitability, employee engagement, retention, innovation, and competitive edge.

·      For employees, culture impacts the extent to which you are able to contribute your gifts and talents, therefore your sense of fulfillment, your ability to perform at your highest level, and correspondingly your level of perceived stress and enjoyment, and ultimately your health and financial well-being.

·      For customers, culture determines the extent to which you are able to purchase a desired good or service within a desired time frame, at a desired cost and quality in a socially/personally acceptable manner.

I often get called by senior management to help with the culture of a company when there is a pain point. Because most company owners do have a vision for the positive things they want, there is usually a disconnect between what they want and what they are rewarding and here’s where it gets fun! As I said before, there is no neutral. Because of the laws of behavior, if you are not intentionally fostering the desired behaviors within your organization you are either quickly or slowly extinguishing them. This is great news because it means there is a solution! It’s a very simple (albeit not easy) process of

1)     Defining the behaviors you want to be prevalent in your organizations

2)    Redoing Step A until you are crystal clear on what people are saying and doing in your vision for your company

3)    Identifying what you are currently doing to reward these actions

4)    Defining how you these actions are currently being intentionally or unintentionally suppressed.

5)    Redistributing the balance of consequences to support the culture you want.

This is a fundamental process that can produce results that seem almost unbelievable. It does take a leap of faith and a brave degree of vulnerability for owners to really pull back the covers and be honest about the current balance of consequences and I have found that when the willingness is not there, the culture is usually perceived as unattractive, with the expected results. On the other hand, embarking on the exploration can transform not only organizations, but also the people in the organization. 

By Carrie Maldonado

Carrie Maldonado, is an organizational development consultant, author, and speaker. Carrie's eclectic mix of professional interests include writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting on topics ranging from organizational behavior management to spiritual transformation in and out of the workplace. Carrie lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her patient and long-suffering husband and their three children.

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