How to Debug Your Company’s Culture

by Terry White on December 18, 2012

Culture happens.

Yet in business there’s a misguided assumption that culture is created by mission statements, company values lists, and branding taglines. Not true—I say so backed up by a BA in Anthropology, MA in American Studies, and four decades of culture-watching since.

Culture is a self-sustaining force that emerges in all large groups based on common patterns in the members’ thoughts, words, and actions. While corporate proclamations have an impact on the employees’ thoughts, words, and action, they often become the source of culture problems. Why? They are fragile—a few management do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do inconsistencies can undermine the authenticity of missions and values and turn good intentions into cynical cultural jokes.

Take a lesson from a mega-company whose culture is regularly rated among the very best by business media,.  I give you  an alternate story told by ex-employee.

“That company has an enthusiastic team culture built on the premise that innovation requires many minds, questioning and creating in perfect collaboration.” Sounds pretty good, except…. “It’s a great company to work for except for one thing. Everyone tries to be the ideal team player, yet it’s the member who manages to stand out above the team who gets picked for promotion. The best team players never advance. So the culture offers you this career choice—screw yourself or screw your team. How enlightened is that?”

This may not be the most serious cultural mistake a company can make, but it potentially hurts loyal employees—and in turn stakeholders and customers. Companies therefore have moral and pragmatic reasons to manage their cultures more proficiently. Not, however, by a massive makeover of their mission and values and taglines. There is a simple solution that no one seems to know about.

Did you notice the hidden lesson in the ex-employee’s story? Focus on these words—“…great company to work for except for one thing.”  Separate the two messages. Leave the great-company message alone and focus on the exception.

One thing  isn’t a culture breakdown, it’s simply a bug. Managing culture is a debugging exercise. And because anthropologists have been breaking culture down into managable components for more than a century, you will find bugs easily by knowing where to look.

Let’s pick a common culture problem and create a debugging strategy—say, gender issues. Here is a complaint I heard not long ago from a female sales rep. “This is a great company to work for, except for one thing—the sales department has a male locker-room atmosphere that makes me angry and holds me back from giving my best.”

Not wanting to make the situation worse, she hesitates to complain. But of course she will talk to other women in her position and eventually the culture will pick up these messages and carry them to management. But how can management solve a problem that must have been imbedded in the culture for a long time?  How do you start a cultural change.

First management should not  ignore the “great place to work” positive message. Instead, focus on the exception by examining the cultural components and interviewing the members of the culture they effect. Simply stated–identify the bugs, remove them, and reprogram. Here are some suggestions.

Shared Ideals and Beliefs

Ideals and beliefs are what societies take as given—no need for explanation or interpretation. For example, America’s ideals and beliefs are always related to our central concept of freedom. In company cultures there are similar concepts but they are not always articulated clearly or they may seem outdated or they may be great words on paper but disconnected from the deeds in the cubicles. One gender issue bug could be the lack of a more global principle—like respect. Ask yourself….

  • How visibly does your company champion respect and value diversity?
  • How would you rate all levels of management at making respect tangible with employees?
  • How well does your company integrate its functional areas and reinforce the value everyone’s contributions?

Language and Kinship

Less abstract that ideals and beliefs, linguistic patterns reveal to anthropologists how the people of a culture perceive their environment and interact with it. Corporations have a language full of similar signals—jargon that uniquely describes products and processes that make up the landscape employees work in. Also messages for how success and the lack of it are measured and expressed. Kinship tells the anthropologist how people relate to each other and how they manage differences in status and skills. The company uses titles and job descriptions in the same way. Because men and women have some distinct language and kinship differences, the  bugs will be easy to observe.

  • Do your recruiting, training, and retention strategies contain gender biased language left over from the past?
  • Is your company sensitive to the well-researched, distinctive communication patterns associated with males and females?
  • How saturated is your motivational language with male-centric messages that females may not relate to—military and sports analogies, for example.

Rules and Rituals

Cultural rules set the boundaries of behaviors, while rituals teach patterns of behavior within those boundaries. Corporate rules on gender issues are typically focused on the critical boundary of sexual harassment— essential for myriad reasons but not exactly the foundation for creating new gender sensitive success models. Companies need to evaluate those models and debug the rules and ritualized measurements that advance people.

  • How can your company create and enforce new rules about respect for gender differences and all other forms of diversity?
  • Can the behavior models associated with success in your company be equally applied to males and females—and should they be equally applied or modified for gender differences?
  • If your company has a corporate dress code as well as other rules with gender implications, are the rules enforced consistently between genders?

Artifacts and Memes

Artifacts are material objects that carry cultural meaning. In the corporate world that’s anything from desk chairs to success awards to wall decor to parking spaces. Memes are intangibles—ideas, behaviors, fashions, fads that move through the culture.  Memes self-replicate by imitation and mutation to let everyone know what’s cool in your company, what’s smart, what’s valued, and what’s not.

  • With the accelerated pace of change, is it time to rethink the traditional artifacts and memes that were norms in a more gender-biased past but are clearly out of touch today?
  • Can your company establish a competitive business spirit that respects male and female differences in measuring career growth and satisfaction?
  • How can your company integrate gender equality and also provide affirmative support for one gender without suppressing the other gender.
  • Is there an ideal cultural message to encourage gender collaboration while als0 endorsing separate gender workstyles?


Sometimes the bugs show up a level below the general culture. When a cultural entity is large, anthropologists look for subcultures within it. For example, America shows a homogeneous cultural identity to the world, yet within the country are countless strong subcultures that set their members apart from other subcultures, leading to positive diversification or negative conflict.

In the same manner corporations think they have one culture, but a closer look reveals groups within the company that stand apart with a culture of their own—sales, tech, senior management. The specific gender conflict of this sample debugging exercise is the sales department. Within that department gender issues might be better managed from a subculture perspective by creating female sales teams, female mentors, and female sales management alongside male counterparts.

As long as the relative importance of physiological, psychological, and environmental factors in gender differences remains debatable, gender parity will waver between integration or separation and the cultural issues will remain in flux.  However, if  preferences in things like goal-setting, workstyles, lifestyles, learning methods, and communication patterns are real, why not support them as subcultures? Political correctness may be counterproductive in this case.


Finally, the information required for debugging cultural problems is best discovered up close and on the ground. Anthropologists go into the cultures, live among the members, and gather information as objectively as possible.  It is a process known as ethnography.

Ethnography is not a job for management, who are likely to be perceived more as part of the problem then part of the solution to employees experiencing a bug in the culture. Nor can it be conducted from the top floors of corporate headquarters. Every member of the culture—that is, at least the employees in the specific functional areas where the problems are centered—is a potential influencer or inhibitor of positive cultural change.  They all need to be heard in some form. They are the ones who will spread the post-debug stories that will reboot and preserve the culture.

The best way to gather their thoughts and observe their actions is to team an unbiased outside observer with trusted inside members of the culture or subcultures. The outsider has an objective to debug and brings insights from experience in other companies but does not start with any preconceptions or judgments. The insider brings context, hindsight, and foresight that broaden and deepen the analysis, assuring today’s culture solutions don’t evolve into tomorrow’s culture problems. That combination is the best assurance that everyone in the company gains the benefit of the debugging efforts.


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