Fish Don't Know They Swim in Water

Most fish don’t know they swim in water.  At least not the fish whom I have interviewed.

The same is true of most human beings when it comes to corporate culture.  Most of us don’t appreciate fully the cultures of which we are a part.

Corporate culture is a product of human beings, and none of us is perfect, so no corporate culture is without some strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, the weaknesses usually are the strengths (taken to the extreme). 

Keep in mind, however, that there are often different corporate cultures.  There is the public culture and then the underground culture.   And if your organization is a composite of silos, then you may have different cultures in different silos. 

Corporate culture is relevant to many things, including mergers and acquisitions. If corporate cultures don’t jive, you may end up with a combination of the worst of both cultures.

Of course, benefits can be derived from differences that the cultures bring, but the differences cannot be so great that the key players are from Venus and Mars. There needs to be some common ground here on Earth.

I know of one transaction that fell apart because the two leaders “did not share a common vision.”  Translation: mutual contempt.

I would respectfully suggest that perhaps cultural issues should be addressed before the legal and operational. Why spend the time and money on the latter if the former will ultimately 86 it?

But how do you determine your corporate culture(s)?  The same is true for your prom date.

A few suggestions:

1. The best way to assess your culture is to survey your employees. However, unless the results are truly anonymous, most smart employees will simply parrot back when they believe management wants to hear.  So protect anonymity.

2. Consider interviews of employees (by an outsider) rather than relying solely on written or electronic surveys. Based on a true dialogue, you will learn much more. You can drill down to understand what is behind the labels that employees usually offer.

3. No matter how you gather information, make sure you have a cross-section that can identify cultures within a culture.  You may have a culture that embraces gender equality, but a cluster of knuckle draggers in a particular department, division, etc. 

4. Consider obtaining input not only from employees, but also other key stakeholders. This includes customers, clients and patients, for example,  It also may include the communities which you serve.  This is particularly true of health care combinations.

5. Try not to be defensive.  The feedback is not always pleasant but what you will learn may help you in the future, even if the combination does not take place.  How you are perceived is almost as important as who you are.

Need to go. Three more fish to interview. If I learn that they know they swim in water, I will report back to you. 

This blog shall not be construed as legal advice, as pertaining to specific factual situations or as establishing an attorney-client relationship.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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