Hidden within every organisation is a mysterious phenomenon. It can be a blessing; it can be a curse. The deeper it is the more powerful it becomes. Like a silent vapour it permeates the atmospherics, the function and the daily behaviour of the people who work within the walls of its influence.

Leaders and line managers believe they can ignore it and it will go away. Misunderstanding its power and unknowingly believing that time will create its own cure, they refuse to understand that, like a septic sore, it can so easily turn gangrenous and poison the whole body.

I, of course, refer to an organisation’s culture. That mysterious mixture of the intangible. Too spooky to admit to, at least in executive company. One be-suited CEO once told me it was all nonsense and that the only culture in his company was in the yoghurt in the staff canteen fridge. If, like him you’re in a state of denial, watch out because for all its hype it’s very real and more powerful than a speeding bullet.

Perhaps an example will persuade those who refuse to take this ‘culture
thing’ seriously.

At a function some five years ago, I was engaged in discussion with a senior bank teller. The Latin phrase ‘in vino veritas’, (in wine, there is truth ) comes to mind, because once fuelled by chardonnay she resorted to a sweeping rhetoric about “bloody customers“. It was sprinkled with the odd obscenity and well tuned with insults and examples of customer’s misdemeanours, such as banging on the bank door two minutes after closing, demanding service and complaining about long queues. Naughty customers!

She then spewed forth with a venomous attack on her bank’s recent ad campaign which, according to her, encouraged these ‘unreasonable’ customers. It was vitriolic and we were soon joined by her other colleagues who grievously agreed with everything she said. Within this barrage of verbal diarrhoea, they made it absolutely clear that management had no real appreciation of what they went through daily and by the time the discussion ended the bank’s management was declared the enemy and more sympathy than anger was directed toward the customer.

Some will see this as a management problem. “The management should understand the personnel better”, others will say, “Fire them, they don’t do as they are told”. Yet others will look at the logic surrounding the bank’s customer policy and some will cast their criticism toward the
HR department

Truth is this malfunction is the direct result of a lack of understanding by all, of that mysterious vapour known as culture.

Culture is the personality of the organisation, created by a leader’s guiding belief which manifests itself in the actions of all who work for that organisation. We’ve seen its power in collapsed ad campaigns that have been sabotaged by the workers, often unconsciously because the campaign does not have cultural parallels with the required performance. “It’s not our way”, say the workers. “It’s not the way things happen around here”. Culture has prevailed!

The perfect example of this is McDonalds. Try getting away from the window or the counter without the customary, “Would you like fries and a coke with that?” Worldwide it’s the same and it’s not a rule, it’s a value – a philosophy – it’s culture at work.

If you don’t know anything about culture, discover it today, because next time you have a problem in your organisation you can bet your Bank to a Big Mac the answer lies in the ‘culture’.