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Why HR Should Talk Less About Culture

This week an old post of mine, HR’s Sloppy Thinking About Culture, was shared on LinkedIn and then Twitter (thank you very much Simon Jones and Rob Briner). Once I got over the initial shock that five years have passed since I wrote it, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the topic of organizational culture.

Between then and now I’ve written a lot about culture, and published very little of it. It’s a topic I keep coming back to, not only because it’s fascinating and frustratingly misunderstood, but also because it has personal meaning for me, linking my education and past academic aspirations in Anthropology to my career in HR.

HR’s Sloppy Thinking on Culture was the first post that garnered any significant attention for this blog. It was picked up by a bunch of leadership and executive newsletters, republished by Business Insider (with a more clickbaity title that I can’t remember now), and led to dozens of people from all over the world e-mailing me about the culture work they were doing (which was completely incredible). That is to say, it gave me a giant case of imposter syndrome.

The last five years have been absolutely packed with professional and personal learning for me, and until this year, a lot less blogging. But my thinking on culture, and the ways we continue to misunderstand and misuse it in organizations, has continued to evolve since the Sloppy Thinking post was written (although I was relieved to find that I still agree with what I wrote back then).

I continue to believe that ‘culture transformation’ or the breezy notion of ‘designing’ an organization’s culture are lovely ideas that typically signal a fundamental misunderstanding of what culture is. The term as it used in business today is a dramatic oversimplification of a complex idea, stripped of nuance and imbued with magic.

I’d go so far to say that I now believe that talking about culture in our organizations is not particularly useful to achieving the goals that culture change is usually aimed at.

This is partly because the word itself tends to distract from a robust exploration of what problem an organization is actually solving for, and also because in my experience it obscures the role of individual accountability for behaviours.

As my wise friend Bryan Acker once said:

“Culture is often the trendy way of saying ‘We have no idea what’s wrong'”

I fear that organizations and leaders within them are often drawn to invest in culture initiatives because it appears and feels like they are doing something, while avoiding the hard and complex systemic problems in their organizations. Because pointing to ‘the culture’ creates distance between bad actors that organizations may not wish to confront, and the less apparent but lasting consequence of their actions. It’s so much easier to say “Let’s work on the culture” rather than make the difficult decision to call out or fire individuals who deliver, but cause considerable collateral damage to those around them.

HR, far too often focused on delivering what is ordered rather than revising the menu, is generally ill equipped, and lacks incentive, to push back on a leader’s interpretation of culture, whether it will offer any benefit, and how that might be achieved.

For employees, hearing that their organization is working on its culture tends to produce either confusion, or resistance. If the subsequent effort takes the form of a superficial internal rebranding project, they’ll show up to see the unveiling of the new values on the wall and eat cake (if it’s on offer) but will most likely patiently wait for attention to drift elsewhere, which it almost certainly will. (Consider this your periodic reminder that the people who work for our organizations are smart and will see through lame attempts to manufacture positive buzz and photo ops)

If instead the culture change effort takes the form of more organized, top-down campaign, it’s very difficult to avoid signalling to people that who they are and how they work is wrong and needs to be fixed. People don’t like that, and there are more of them than you.

These types of interventions might appear to work. That is, you may get the appearance of compliance because people like having a job, and are adept at discerning what hoops they need to jump through to get their work done and not piss off those in power. But whatever they do to appease those intent on culture change, it will only be a surface projection, rather than what so many at the the helm of these projects want: for the people in the organization to be different.

That’s at the crux of the views I’m sharing here: that culture change as it is most typically spoken about in HR and popular management literature is just a slightly softer strategy of control. That it falsely promises leaders a way to change people’s behaviour without changing their own.

Culture is the reflection of what a group of people value and believe, as evidenced and reinforced by a million everyday actions and interactions. You cannot separate ‘working on your culture’ from working on ‘how we act towards each other’. Attempts to act directly on culture are like trying to change the reflection, not the thing being reflected.

Rather than shout at our reflections, it’s certainly more productive to work on ourselves. Defining the problem we are trying to solve, and spending the time to identify its root cause (or more likely causes). Confronting bad behaviour, and doing what’s necessary to address it. Amplifying the people and teams that are doing great things of their own accord, finding the practices and behaviours that are working and trying to help them spread. Focusing not on a vague vision of the culture we want, but teams that struggle to adopt new behaviours and exploring why; not the surface-level why, but the real obstacles and pressures that are preventing it. And making space for people to discuss those challenges, and how to do things differently – not necessarily in exactly the way we assume they should.

We can call this culture work, if it helps us communicate why hard things must be done. But we should be wary of the baggage this word carries, the sweeping promises and almost certain disappointment.


My thinking on this topic has been influenced by plenty of reading, both popular and academic, practical and theoretical, recent and classic. A few recommendations:

Read this week:

This App is Trying to Replicate You: Mike Murphy, Jacob Templin – Quartz

If you read anything this week, take the time to absorb this incredible and eerie piece of writing on Replika, an app that uses text message conversations to gather data about you, which is then run through a neural network to create a bot that acts like you.

The first part in the Machines with Brains Quartz series, it amazed and frightened me. It also reminded me how little I truly understand the many applications for emerging tech like machine learning and AI. And yet, I’m so drawn to this topic because of the very thing this article highlights: efforts and achievements to make machines more human raise deeply important questions about what it means to be human in the first place.

“But what exactly makes us us? Is there substance in the trivia that is our lives? If someone had been secretly storing every single text, tweet, blog post, Instagram photo, and phone call you’d ever made, would they be able to recreate you?”

Murphy relates how Replika’s creator was inspired to develop the prototype bot by the loss of a dear friend, using their thousands of instant message conversations to build an interactive approximation of him. The author describes his own experiment to use the beta version of Replika as surprisingly beneficial to his general mood and outlook on life, while also wondering if his friends and family would be soothed or satisfied with this “vague simulacra” of him if he were gone.

How I Lost My 25 -year Battle With Corporate Claptrap – Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times

Kellaway’s ongoing diatribes against corporate jargon and buzzwords reach a grand finale with this post, ostensibly her signal that she’s giving up. It’s an admirable parting shot, filled with the most egregious examples she’s come across since her first column on the topic in 1994. It’s worth the cringes to be bathed in her cleansing blast of scorn:

“Howard Schultz is a champion in the bullshit space. The Starbucks executive chairman has provided me with more material for columns than any other executive alive or dead. Yet he is still at it, and still out-doing himself. Earlier this year, he announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were “delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience”.

In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is “an”. Mr Schultz has brewed up a blend of old and new jargon, the fashionable and the workaday, adding a special topping of his own. “Delivering” and “experience” are grim but not new. “Ultra-premium” is needless word inflation. “Immersive” is fashionable, though ill-advised if you are talking about scalding liquids. The innovation is “coffee-forward”. Sounds fantastic, but what is it?”

Woman Reprimanded for Mentioning Her Period at Work – People Management, Emily Burt

Look, I’m going to assume that you, like me, think that this story is ridiculous. Sadly, I’ll bet that for many of you it isn’t the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard of HR doing. Amid a push for the “professionalization” of HR, how do we screen out this nonsense?

Side note: If you would like to read a slightly dated rant about HR’s tendency to be little dictators please check out my post: Manatees, Tube Tops, and Policies for the “Clueless Few”

Image Credit: Matt Lamers via

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great paragraph!
    “If instead the culture change effort takes the form of more organized, top-down campaign, it’s very difficult to avoid signalling to people that who they are and how they work is wrong and needs to be fixed. People don’t like that, and there are more of them than you.”
    Love it!

    July 17, 2017
  2. This is really excellent Jane. It reminds me of research by Deeming et al showing that 80% of performance problems are beyond the authority of operational staff to fix. This means that too often people are seen as the poor performers when actually it’s the failure of management to identify & fix system & process problems that is the real cause of under performance.

    July 18, 2017
  3. Elisabeth #

    Thanks for mentioning the power play that is most of the organized “cultural change”. The rarely happens when “culture” is mentioned.

    If you like “The Conversational Firm”, you should also check out Dan Lyons’ “Disrupted”, which ist about the same firm, only from the perspective of someone who has actually worked there and not just observed. For my taste, the author of “The Conversational Firm” is too much in love with her own observations and hypotheses to see the power plays working themselves out.

    July 18, 2017
  4. Elisabeth, apologies for the late reply and thanks for the recommendation, it’s in the Kindle queue!

    August 25, 2017

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