Organizational Culture

Stuck in the past: how dominant-group culture curbs organizational performance

Organizational culture can evolve into a description of the values and beliefs of its dominant demographic group, particularly the dominant group within its senior leadership. When this happens, company culture is likely to be about how that group sees and experiences the world - a perception which is mistaken for the full story. Subsequently, this prevailing mindset screens out critical information and perspectives, impacting how the business responds to risks and opportunities. Organizational performance is the victim.

In some regards, this isn’t a bad thing: if the organization has got where it is today with a set of prevailing values and beliefs, why not continue with that? The problem comes when leadership loses sight of just how past-focused its culture is. It's even worse when there are significant changes in the demographics of the organization's workforce or customer base. When this happens, that dominance can represent a multifaceted threat to organizational performance.

In our work with large organizations, we’ve seen this type of cultural dominance create 3 threats to organizational performance.

1. The organization’s culture becomes a barrier to expert opinion and transparent communication

Most times, the threat to expert opinion and transparent communication accumulates through the thousands of meetings that take place daily across an organization. In meetings, where data doesn't support the prevailing beliefs or values, dominant-group cultures tend to question its validity. Where expert opinion doesn't tend towards the prevailing mindset, its relevance is called into question.

Such manifestations of cultural misalignment can elicit antagonism and awkwardness in meetings, which can deter even the best professionals from speaking up. It’s not that people can’t speak up - or won’t - due to lack of integrity or courage to challenge. It’s the fact that the repeated shutdowns, yes's-that-mean-no, and coded messages to "just let it go" or "leave it" eventually pile up. Death by 10,000 paper cuts. People reason that it’s better to hold their silence and signal cultural alignment. They pivot to focusing on doing their best today... in the promise-to-self that tomorrow, when they hold a more senior position, they'll speak up more.

What threat does this silence pose to the organization? The resulting echo chamber undermines decision-making and leads to out-of-touch innovation and customer engagement.

Note for the nerds. At highly competitive companies, even seeming to be culturally misaligned can result in a significant loss of stakeholder influence, and can therefore eventualize as an act of career deceleration or suicide (rarely instantaneous, often slow-acting and involving gradual sidelining).

2. The organization struggles to attract, engage, and retain the diverse talent it needs to grow

Here, diverse talent includes both diversity by personal characteristics like race, gender or age, and diversity by attributes like socioeconomic background or technical skillset.

When the culture reflects the beliefs and values of a dominant demographic group, the communication and ways of working accepted at the organization mirror how that dominant demographic authentically shows up at work. The culture allows for deviation, but only within the spectrum demonstrated by that single demographic. Consequently, other ways of showing up tend to be judged as less professional, less effective, or “less” in some other way critical to stakeholder engagement and career advancement at the organization. This makes it much harder for talent that's different to the dominant group to succeed there.

Here, dominant-group culture amplifies organizational intolerance for all forms of diversity: personal characteristics, social attributes, and professional background and skills. We saw this at a large company that needed to grow its specialist creative talent base but prized the commercially driven general manager profile: creative team leaders spent most of their time shielding their direct reports, and the creative teams themselves suffered from high levels of disengagement, burn out, and turnover.

3. Succession planning is dominated by similarity bias (and biased interests)

Similarity bias is when we show preference for people who are like us. It's often unconscious. In dominant-group cultures, senior leadership and HR leaders more often see leadership potential in people who show they have similar beliefs and values as the dominant demographic group. Naturally, you can expect there to be a stronger, more consistent demonstration of these shared beliefs and values from people coming from the actual same demographic group. In extreme cases, coming from a particular demographic group becomes a proxy for having the required leadership potential. Correspondingly, individuals who are not a member of the dominant demographic group tend to fare worse when benchmarked against the organization's codified leadership models and processes.

We have seen this occur in performance appraisal and succession planning, consciously and unconsciously. Without going into the ethics or pragmatism of this, it invariably means that senior leadership becomes a revolving door of the same faces. Over time, the organization develops a significant leadership deficit in strategic thinking and diversity of thought. This can radically impair the health of an organization, particularly if it needs to transform to stay ahead of major shifts in its external environment, for example tech disruption or changing consumer tastes.

Note for the nerds. There is a peculiar effect worth noting due to its frequency in dominant-group cultures: the undue influence of one or two very senior stakeholders who represent a “safe deviation” from the cultural norm. Typically, such individuals deviate from the dominant demographic group by only one or two characteristics (usually gender or race). They are highly adept operators and engage in heavy, highly strategic signalling of cultural alignment. As regards succession planning, by dint of their difference (the "safe deviation") and cultural signalling, they may hold a high level of sway as the de facto representative for all non-dominant group voices and the respected strategic challenger. Notably, these individuals often have an agenda and methods at odds with the organization's best interests and stated values - hence, referring to them as "biased interests" in succession planning.

Final word

All three threats are situations where the organizational culture is not serving the business' best interests. The culture neither represents, nor creates sufficient space for, the values and beliefs of its broader workforce or customer base. Needless-to-say, the culture is also not optimized to support the company's ambitions. As such, organizational performance gets curbed. Productivity and customer-centricity are sacrificed to signalling cultural alignment. The organization cannot get and keep the talent it needs. The leadership talent pipeline and senior leadership bench perpetuate a past-focused culture that anchors within the commonalities of a single demographic.

There are multiple solutions to address these threats. Chief among them is C-suite commitment to recognize the different microcultures across the organization - from geographically derived ones, to functional enclaves, to those defined by their involvement in flagship projects or company "golden eras". More often than not, this recognition reveals opportunities to evolve the organizational culture in a way that respects its legacy and supports its strategic priorities.

To learn more about how to evolve a dominant-group culture, or to discuss your organization's culture evolution opportunities, contact us.

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