Blog: When Corporate Culture is Set Adrift


I have spent many years working with companies, helping them nurture corporate cultures and foster positive work environments. Both large and small businesses have challenges in managing an ever-changing cultural landscape.

In larger corporations, you’ll usually see very well defined corporate cultures, though they might not be aligned with business goals and objectives.

In small to mid-size businesses, the picture of corporate culture can get foggy over time. The reason this happens is due to the very nature of how these companies start. Owners of small businesses take on the role of leadership and by default, they are the corporate culture, whether they are aware of it or not.

Initially, these organizations are less focused on building a corporate culture and more focused on building a profitable business. Once they begin to see a profit, they reward and promote those people who have brought success to the company.

It’s after that first phase of growth when a culture shift can occur.

If a corporate culture is not formally established in the early stages of success, the culture will begin to form organically, based upon the personalities of its leaders and other strong, successful supporters within the organization.

Remember the book, Lord of the Flies? The novel speaks to what happens when young British boys become castaways on an island and they establish a society based upon personal power and coercion. It’s a fictional example of what happens when culture is allowed to grow unchecked or is mismanaged.

Variations of this theme happen in the corporate world, as well. When there isn’t any stewardship of an organization’s culture, the work environment may become very tribal with warring factions vying for various levels of control within the company.

Bruna Martinuzzi, author of Presenting with Credibility, has found seven signs of a toxic corporate culture:

    1. t
    2. Lack of equality rules


    1. Negative cliques thrive


    1. Malice trumps kindness


    1. Managers play favorites


    1. Unqualified cronies are hired


    1. One of the leaders is the epitome of bad behavior


  1. Tenure (not competence and value) holds the power

Human resources are one area within an organization that can provide stewardship, guidance, and support of corporate culture. As Chip Luman of the Society for Human Resource Management points out:

“As culture continues to be a key determining factor in a company’s ability to attract new talent and retain its current employees, HR departments are under increasing pressure to manage and foster their company’s cultures. While HR might not always have the power to change the culture outright, it does have the ability to influence leadership to steer the culture in the right direction and nurture an environment where employees enjoy coming to work and performing their jobs.”

The lesson here is that any company, big or small, has a corporate culture. It begins with leadership, which in an ideal world spreads the culture through an entire organization. Strong work cultures thrive when leaders emulate positive behaviors and are supported by human resources. However, when leaders ignore their organization’s culture, human nature will take over, leaving the organization to fight amongst itself for its own identity.

And that’s an island no one wants be on.

Joseph F. Bastian, president of The Human Performance Network, is a regular contributor to and DBusiness Daily News.