Culture – Why is it Complicated?

culture and shared experiences

Culture is not about employee happiness, how an organization feels, or about employee morale. Culture isn’t casual dress or foosball tables. Culture is multi-dimensional and interconnected. Culture is unique and complicated because people are unique and complicated.

Shared Experiences
Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people. Together people learn and make sense out of those experiences. For example, when I worked at Coopers & Lybrand, a project would begin and the leader would set the start time for the day. Then each day the team would show up a few minutes before the work day would start at 6 am or earlier. There was a legendary team that worked on an automotive account that would go out all night and then head into the office in the wee hours to begin their work day!

The shared experience taught employees that they were supposed to work hard and play hard. It also reinforced the belief that the number of hours you worked was a badge of honor. It was a culture where Saturday work in the office was expected and we felt lucky because we didn’t have to dress formally! We learned that success was measured in hours and face time.

Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people.

This visual representation of culture is based on Dr. Edgar Schein’s explanation of culture.

schein culture levels

Seeing the layers helps explain why “flip flops and free beer” is not culture. These are artifacts that you may see but there are underlying values and beliefs that create the true culture of the organization. This is the deep, stable (change resistant), interconnected nature of culture.

We worked with an organization whose CEO fancied it a high-tech company. The lunch rooms got a makeover and the walls were painted bright colors. Some walls were so bright they had to soften them by painting them a more subdued shade! The new décor didn’t create a high-tech culture. Their processes were still cumbersome, managers still believed people had to be in the office to do productive work (versus being able to work remotely) and the office was deadly silent versus buzzing with energy.  The artifacts contradicted what was really going on in the organization.

As you observe the artifacts of culture, be careful not to attribute too much meaning. There are beliefs and values that drive behaviors which could be very different than what you see. This is why change is much more challenging than making a declaration explaining what’s changing.

It’s complicated
Some leaders believe if they emulate the Google work environment, they’ll create the Google culture. Hopefully, we’ve shed some light on the reality that nap pods, free lunches, and cool décor are only a small aspect of culture. Deep levels of change require reworking foundational beliefs and mindsets. Culture is complicated!

Do you agree, or do you have a different perspective on culture? Please share your thoughts and ideas below.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

Like the content? Sign up for more…It’s FREE!

Our Privacy Guarantee: Your e-mail address will never be shared with anyone else. Education only, no selling of products or services.

Donna Brighton is an expert in organizational culture and change. She advises CEO’s, Directors and executive teams throughout the world to rapidly accelerate strategic outcomes. Donna has been consulting for nearly twenty-five years, and has done leadership-and-change projects in twenty-seven industries. A recognized thought leader in the field of organizational change she recently was co-editor for the People & Strategy Journal special edition on change management.

Donna holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership as well an advanced certification in Organizational Change Management. She is the President of the Global Association of Change Management Professionals and has served as a volunteer leader since its inception. She is co-author of the Goal Achievement Workbook and author of the soon to be published Change Management Memory Jogger.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patrick Trottier

    Donna, you make many excellent point. Yes, some (many?) companies try to “emulate” another company’s ‘culture’ especially if there is a lot of articles about ‘the hype’ of that company like Google gets. People believe these articles rather than ‘actually experiencing’ what it is really like to live and work within an organization – one has to ‘experience it, rather than read about it to realize it, IMHumbleO.

    Three points:

    1. This is like the old practice / notion of trying to ”replicate’ best practices, which is a road of folly.
    2. The fact that one company tries to ’emulate’ another shows a kernel issue with its own current culture – the ‘positional’ leadership lacks the willingness, the understanding and/or the capabilities to actually do the work to form and shape the culture that is appropriate for that organization.
    3. In my graduate work in the early 80s on ‘culture’ which identified ‘congruence’ of stated /written words and ‘what people actually experience day-to-day’ as a key element of shaping a culture. You brought this out very nicely.

    i do wonder if ‘shaping an appropriate culture’ is really that complicated, or is that merely a symptom of something bigger. As stated above, maybe it is a mirror of the deficiencies of leadership that lacks the willingness, the understanding and/or the capabilities to do
    the work to form and shape the culture that is appropriate for that

    I suggest to give people a consistent and congruent different experience aligned with their ‘real values’, that has a higher purpose, is meaningful to people and also open the doors to allow others to manifest experiences they can relate to and a new culture will emerge over time. In other words, ‘actualize’ their core values into people’s experiences and embed those values into the systems, business processes, technologies, policies, decision-making processes, job design, degrees of autonomy, etc., etc. It is not that hard when you are authentic and use one’s values as a beacon and foundation of thought when thinking about people and engaging others in re-designing the organization and thus, its culture.

    P.S. Too bad they did not ask the people who work there, what color works for them. Now, that may be a new experience. Maybe someone read about and misunderstood ‘the Hawthorn effect’.

  • Burton Clark

    If you want an example see my video on the American Fire Culture