How We Think

Changing a culture’s inner core

No vision, value, or mission statement, no strategy or structure—no matter how well designed or how well articulated—can be so clear as to specify in advance everything people should do.

There will always be gaps.

People draw on past experience to fill in those gaps as they go about their work together with each other. Over time, this working together gives rise to patterns—characteristic ways of interacting that people intuitively recognize and tacitly accept.

Over even more time, these discrete patterns between two or three people or groups form larger patterns across many people and groups. Most leaders, for example, say that they value collaboration and risk-taking and that they want to empower those below them. Yet in the flow of real events, the same leaders start jumping in and telling people below what to do; those below start to tacitly accept and defer to those above; different constituencies compete with one another for credit or scarce resources; external constituents clamor for results, while those inside—who are now too internally focused to produce great results—rush to defend themselves from that clamoring.

It is patterns like these that translate visions, missions, values, strategies, and structures into cultural realities that are often quite different from what leaders or followers might have imagined or intended.

Soon, everyone is living in a cultural reality far different from the one they wanted, yet no one can see what he or she did to contribute to that reality. As far as everyone is concerned, someone else has created that reality, and their only choice is to put up with it or leave.

Something even more disconcerting happens when leaders launch a change effort to bring culture back in line with what they wanted or intended: Those efforts often fail. And that very failure generates still more cynicism and an even greater sense of helplessness on everyone’s part—including that of the leaders!

Why such dismaying results? Often it’s because all this effort is aimed at changing the surface level of a culture: campaigning around a new vision, strategy, or value statement; redesigning organizational processes or structures to drive desired behavior; resuscitating a tired brand; agreeing to new operating norms; and the like.

Such efforts are a start. But unless leaders also address the assumptions in people’s heads, they inevitably leave a culture’s inner core intact—and that core will wash out everything else.

To change a culture’s core, leaders must change
the beliefs or assumptions that guide the way
people interpret events and take collective action.

And that involves more than individual leaders’ modeling new behavior.

Leaders must work together to transform culturally symbolic relationships—those relationships people watch to figure out how to interpret events and take action with others. These include those relationships between levels, across groups, and with external constituents that, for one reason or another, are especially salient to a lot of people.

People take their lead from that relatively small number of relationships. If you transform them, you can transform the assumptions in people’s heads that govern how they behave—as individuals and as a collective.

For more, see “Changing a Culture’s DNA” and “Changing Culture Change.”

The relationship paradox

Although the inner workings of any relationship can be very hard to see, their effects are so powerful that no one can avoid them. Consider the adversarial relationship between two groups making it impossible to get things done; the point-counterpoint dynamics within a team halting all progress; the erratic, dominating behavior of a leader reinforced by the helpless withdrawal of those below, causing both to throw up their hands. Look familiar?

Everyone can feel the effects of these all-too-common relationship patterns, but it is much harder to grasp and harder still to alter their inner workings.

Why is this?

Well, it’s complicated—that’s the first reason. The second is that relationships are the context in which we do almost everything: work, learn, grow, raise families, change our lives, or get caught in a rut. They’re so much a part of our everyday lives that we scarcely notice them.


The third reason has to do with a highly shared assumption—namely, that relationships are not the province of work; that they are the province solely of family life. We all assume that while it’s fair game to talk about our relationships at home (though, please, not too much!), it’s touchy-feely to talk about them at work. After all, we figure, relationships are not the stuff of work; they’re the stuff of our personal lives, of feelings, of a private nature. So let’s just get on with it!

Only thing is, they’re really not just private matters or personal feelings. They have far-reaching public effects. And we can’t just get on with it—because they keep getting in the way!

That’s because, though hard to see, relationships form patterns
that have a powerful influence on our own behavior and
on the systems in which we work and live.

Just count the number of times you’ve decided to do something—or not to do something—because of your relationship with someone: “I must do this; otherwise Joan will do that,” or “I can’t do that because John will do this.”

Here’s the kicker: John and Joan will likely say the same thing about you!

And therein lies yet another paradox. Despite our best efforts, we humans have a peculiar tendency to create patterns with others that ask too little of each other and sell us all short.

Trouble is, those patterns pack a lot of power. Family researchers are finding that relationship patterns within families affect even genetically informed behavior, accentuating some traits while suppressing others. According to research conducted by leading family theorist David Reiss, “Many genetic factors, powerful as they may be, exert their influence only through the good offices of the family.”

Similarly, our own research in organizations suggests that relationships have a powerful effect on leadership and followership behavior. In fact, we’re finding that leaders and followers experience themselves and each other quite differently in different relationships, leading them to behave differently and to create different results.

Relationships also profoundly influence organizational growth and change. After decades of clinical research in a wide range of organizations, culture expert Ed Schein concluded: “Almost any change in behavior, assumptions, attitudes and values is mediated by interpersonal relationships.”

All of this suggests that relationships, like water, may be hard to see, but whether harnessed or unharnessed, they can unleash an amazing amount of power.

Best to harness them.