It’s common that organizational culture is an expression of the core values and beliefs of its dominant demographic group, especially within its senior leadership. When this happens, the culture is more likely to be descriptive of how that group sees and experiences the world, than it is a strategic approach to how culture supports individual and organizational performance.
In some regards, this isn’t a bad thing: organizational cultures are often designed to enshrine ways of doing things that have proved successful in the past. If the organization has got where it is today with a set of prevailing values and beliefs, why not continue with them? The problem comes when leadership loses sight of just how past-focused its culture is, or of how much it’s informed by the values and beliefs of its dominant demographic group in spite of significant changes in the demographics of its workforce or customer base. When this happens, that dominance can represent a substantial and multifaceted threat to organizational performance.
In our work with large organizations, we’ve seen this particular form of cultural dominance create 3 key problems:
Most times this effect accumulates through the thousands of meetings that take place daily across the organization. Where data or professional opinion fails to endorse - or lead to the endorsement of - the prevailing beliefs and values, cultures dominated by a single demographic group tend to reject it, directly or indirectly. The awkwardness and antagonism created by the expression of new or different perspectives can deter even the best professionals from speaking up. It’s not that that they can’t or won’t due to lack of integrity or ability to challenge, it’s the fact that sooner or later the repeated shutdowns, yes’s that mean “no”, or coded messages to “just let it go” or “leave it” eventually pile up. People reason that it’s better to hold their silence, signal cultural alignment, and drive impact as best they can over time and hopefully at ever higher seniority levels at the organization. It’s worth adding here that at highly competitive companies, even seeming to be culturally misaligned can result in substantial loss of stakeholder influence, and in the worst cases, can be an act of career suicide (rarely instantaneous, often a slow-acting domino effect). What threat does this pose to the organization? The resulting echo chamber reduces effective decision-making and leads to “out of touch” innovation and customer engagement.
Here, diverse talent not only includes diversity by personal characteristics like race, gender, or personality profile, but also includes diversity by social attributes like nationality, socioeconomic background, or technical skillset. Where the culture is largely reflective of the beliefs and values of a single demographic group, the work and communication styles accepted at that organization tend to mirror how that demographic actually shows up. It allows for deviation within the spectrum exemplified by that single demographic group, but not for deviation off that spectrum. Thus, other ways of showing up tend to be judged to be less professional, less effective, or “less” in some other manner critical to stakeholder engagement and career advancement at the organization. This can make it substantially harder for talent that is different to the dominant group’s own to deliver and succeed at the organization. Here, the dominance of a single demographic group amplifies organizational intolerance for all forms of diversity: personal characteristic and social attributes. We saw this at a large company that needed to grow its specialist creative talent base but prized the profile of the commercially driven and extroverted general manager: creative team managers spent most of their time shielding their direct reports, and there were high levels of disengagement, burn out, and turnover among creative teams.
Similarity bias is when we show preference for people who are similar to us; it is often unconscious. When the dominant demographic group’s beliefs and values form the culture at an organization, senior leadership in the HR/People function and beyond tend to identify leadership potential more readily in those who demonstrate sharing those beliefs and values. Naturally, one can expect there to be a stronger and more consistent demonstration of those shared beliefs and values from individuals coming from the same demographic group. From here, in some cases, coming from a particular demographic group becomes a proxy for having the required leadership potential. We have seen this occur in performance appraisal and succession planning both consciously and unconsciously. Without going into the ethics or pragmatism of this, it invariably means that senior leadership tends to be a revolving door of the same faces and profiles, and that it can develop a serious lack of perspective and diversity of thought. This can radically impair the health of an organization that faces significant changes in its competitive landscape and/or that needs to evolve or re-invent itself to perform or grow.
There is a peculiar effect worth noting due to its frequency: in organizations whose culture is dominated by a single demographic group, you also often see the undue influence of one of more individuals who represent a “safe deviation” from the cultural norm. Typically, such individuals themselves deviate from the dominant demographic group by only one or two facets - in global organisations this is usually gender or nationality - and they are highly adept operators. We call such actors “biased interests” as regards succession planning as they often have an agenda or methods at odds with the organization’s strategic priorities.
All three problems above represent situations where the culture of the organization is not serving its best interests: Productivity and customer-centricity are sacrificed to signalling cultural alignment internally, the organization cannot get and keep the talent required to unlock the growth it wants, and the talent pipeline and senior leadership perpetuates a past-focused culture.
There are several impactful solutions to address the cultural dominance of a single demographic group, and thereby the threat it poses to organizational health. Chief among them, is recognizing whether or not the organization might face that challenge, and importantly, having the support of the CEO and Board in elevating a culture that better serves the organization’s interests. It’s worth noting that even evolving the culture to reflect the beliefs and values of two demographic groups is a step forward!