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As a manager with some say in the boardroom, I am interested in proposing a few changes to the company culture for the benefit of the overall company performance.

What is still unclear to me is whether the culture is generally just a set of personal preferences by senior management / founders of the company (it seems so to me), or whether it is chosen carefully, professionally developed and made into an institution through calculation.

If it is more of the former, then I guess I will need to learn how to coax the senior leadership... if it is the latter, I could start creating reports and facts to make a case for some cultural changes!

  • may help to know what type of company this is, if you cant share the exact name then maybe one similar? But I have to say I have never actually seen a company culture professionally developed. In my experience, it is the silent code developed by the seniors, and when you get hired, so it is like you are subscribing to that "way" when you work there. In any event, change can be really good, and in most cases people won't becuase of rational and unrational fears of standing out, etc. – Greg McNulty Jul 31 '14 at 22:56
  • I would say that the company culture is developed by the actions of senior management, not their personal preferences. An organization always takes on the character (or lack thereof) of its top management. – Roger Aug 1 '14 at 1:24
  • Policy is just policy unfortunately and has little to no effect on the culture - the culture is what the organization as a collective has learned to accept, and is very hard to change. – user2813274 Aug 1 '14 at 21:11
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What is still unclear to me is whether the culture is generally just a set of personal preferences by senior management / founders of the company (it seems so to me), or whether it is chosen carefully, professionally developed and made into an institution through calculation.

Since there is no one "right" culture, the answer to this question is a bit of both.

In some organisations (particular small ones), there is no active development of a culture - it simply evolves over time as the company hires staff, and since owner/managers do a lot of hiring, their own personality and values eventually produce a filter on the kind of culture that develops. This accounts for a lot the high-churn, low-pay groups out there. But, depending on the hiring selection, it can stumble upon an effective professional culture.

Organisations that have been about a bit, have at least a few staff that have been around for a few years, and have a broader management structure than a simple head at the top, will probably start to foster a culture in-line with certain values that the top-level management want - so the culture is still personality based, even though there's a more intentional direction here.

Every suggestion about changing the culture will be filtered by the decision makers and rated against the decision makers values.

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A lot depends upon the size and structure of the organization, and the person or people in charge of setting company-wide policies and their general disposition (i.e. are they dictators, or collaborators).

In smaller organizations/startups a great deal will depend upon the founders' personal preferences and overall approach. If they're despotic, then the culture will be whatever they decide, for whatever arbitrary reasons they feel like (and trying to enact change from within will generally be futile). If, on the other hand, they want to set up a more egalitarian kind of environment you'll get something that's influenced by the ideas and preferences of everyone involved. You may even get some rationality in terms of which features are picked and for what reason(s). The latter case is relatively common with tech startups.

In larger organizations you'll see less influence in terms of individual preferences and both 1) a greater tendency to simply enact the conservative/pragmatic/"safe" option (nobody wants to leave themselves open to taking the blame for a well-meaning policy-change that has unforseen, disastrous consequences) and 2) a much stronger resistance to change/new ideas.

As you get more people you run into issues like "'Bring your dog to work day' seemed like a good idea, but John is allergic and Sue keeps saying that 'if dogs are okay then cats should be too', and Pete wants to bring his snake, so the simplest way to solve all those problems is to not have 'Bring your dog to work day'"; so policies/cultural aspects that might actually enjoy popular support even amongst the leadership may be decided on the basis of practicality/fairness as opposed to anyone's personal preference or rational argument.

So at the end of the day, it depends. And it's not always one or the other. In any organization there may be some cultural aspects that the leadership (rightly or wrongly) considers of critical importance and so they mandate accordingly in those areas. And there may be other aspects that they don't really care about (or notice/think about), which then get decided by popular opinion, rational discourse, or similar mechanism.

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This will depend greatly on the company.

In some large companies in the tech industry, at least, culture is a little bit of column a and a little bit of column b. It tends to be cultivated and grown, carefully managed and part of the brand identity. But it comes from somewhere and the seeds of a corporate culture often start with the founders and board members.

Some companies hire specialists and teams whose entire purpose is in the fostering and maintenance of company culture. A successful culture will start at hiring - hiring surly employees and trying to have a culture of happy, hugs won't work. Having a culture of innovation and hiring individuals based on their willingness to follow rules probably won't work. Additionally, healthy corporate cultures cannot be a ground-level(or 'grunt' level) only attitude. In order for a corporate culture to be successful, self sustaining and healthy it needs to be embodied at all levels. Employees being asked to be part of a open and honest culture, for example, will be unimpressed if their management is duplicitous or shady.

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A savvy business is very strategic about its culture development. It does need to align with the core values of the folks in charge, so a complete shift in culture would be difficult to pull off. It sounds like you are close, though, and there are oodles of books out there supporting different cultural styles. Find the one that most closely approximates your ideas, and borrow the research from it.

Some suggestions from recent management literature:

  • Leaders Eat Last (Sinek)
  • Hacking Leadership (Myatt)
  • Quick and Nimble (Bryant)
  • To Sell is Human (Pink) Start with Why (Sinek)
  • First Break All the Rules (Buckingham)

You might also look at the Harvard Business Review and anything by Seth Godin.

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No culture develops over time and is overwhelmingly derived from the grass roots and the employees that make up the company modified by the culture these employees come from

Senior management can attempt to change/modify culture but this is hard and can backfire.

Sounds like you have been reading to many MBA case studies by HR professionals trying to make their role seem more important than it is.

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