The problems with labels of culture

The problem with labels of culture is first that they are shallow – working only in terms of stereotypes on the lines of 'all Frenchmen eat frogs' – and confusing: the painting of a pipe by Magritte labelled "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (this is not a pipe) is an example of this. The confusion lies in labelling something that looks like a pipe as 'not a pipe' because, in fact, it is not a pipe but a two dimensional representation of a pipe. Similarly a label of culture is not the culture but a severely abbreviated verbal description. Labels do not represent the pervasive, implicit, nuanced, subtle, complex, and dynamic ways of community being that might be generalisable across an organisation but experienced individually and subjectively.

Second labels imply something fixed in the same way that a flag is fixed. The flag of a country does not change beyond recognition – the Union Jack or the Star Spangled Banner have been the way they have for decades. An organization's culture, however is always moving and fluid, as Gareth Morgan's definition states "(Culture is) an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live."

Third labels do not invite creating a shared meaning. When he took over as chief executive of Lehmann Brothers in 1994, Richard Fuld determined to establish "a culture built on teamwork" as in his view "(this) leads to the best business decisions for the firm as a whole, and paying employees in stock helped reinforce that culture. I wanted them all to think and act and behave like owners." If, as in this case, there is no concerted effort to create a shared understanding then simply making the statement is a recipe for disaster. Again taking the example it:

• Assumes that Fuld's notion of 'teamwork' is the same as each employee's
• Presumes employees have a common view of what thinking, acting and behaving as an owner is (and want to be an owner)
• Acts as if people are motivated by the same rewards – in this case stock
• Believes that 'teamwork' leads to best business decisions

Fuld's main action to develop a "culture of teamwork" was to link compensation to the overall performance of the firm through equity awards (Fuld being awarded colossal sums – somewhere between $350 million and $484.8 million between 2000 and 2008). when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy during the financial sector collapse of 2008 it became clear that the 'culture of teamwork' was one based on greed, lack of oversight and accountability, and blame – not the characteristics commonly associated either teamwork, or with well run owner-managed businesses.

Edgar Schein's definition of culture reinforces the notion that creation of shared meaning is core. He defines culture as "A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

Given that labels of culture are a fact of organisational life, and also that they have severe limitations what approaches can you take to see beyond the label and into the richness of what it stands for? Tomorrow's blog presents some thought on this.