Tom Sanders

“You Can’t Fix Culture.” Did Harvard Business Review Get It Wrong?

By Tom Sanders on April 15, 2016

“What do you think of this?” are the words I hear, quickly followed by the ‘plop’ of the latest Harvard Business Review hitting my desk. I look up to see the one-inch, bold orange typeface taunting me, “YOU CAN’T FIX CULTURE”.

My response is immediate:

“Seriously? In what world is that true? I mean come on, that’s got to be bogus. There’s got to be some middle ground here! HBR is usually pretty insightful, what did they figure out that I missed? Have I been misleading clients? Is my job becoming irrelevant?”

Then it hits me; this is denial, anger, bargaining, depression… Holy crap, I’m grieving! And I haven’t even opened the magazine. I better find a path to acceptance pretty quickly here.

Fortunately, all of this transpires in my head. Externally, I manage to reply with a considered, “Well, that’s certainly a provocative conversation-starter.” I promise to give the article a skim later in the day and turn my attention back to what I was doing.

Minutes later, I’m alone and immediately turning to page 96.


Whew, the headline is misleading. The article is about companies managing crisis and the assertion is that business practices are often the culprit, not culture. Regardless, the article points out that when unethical behavior comes to light, it is often the company culture that is identified as the cause and the cure. It turns out, I agree with the article.

But the initial shock threw me for a loop and here’s why: I do believe you can fix culture, but you have to understand how to assess it and know what to focus on. Culture is an indicator of an organization’s health. And just like our physical health, there are things you can address to improve it – but it requires understanding, commitment and discipline.

So how can you tell if your culture needs fixing?

Step 1: Be Brave. Chances are you already know whether there’s a problem or not. Even if you can’t articulate what the problem is or why it exists, you (and your employees) will have a gut feel. So leave excuses and rationalizations behind, admit there’s a problem, roll up your sleeves and commit.

Step 2: Define ‘Healthy’. A healthy company is able to align, execute and react in ways that sustain exceptional performance. So what are the performance factors that create your success? What are the skills, capabilities and actions that enable them? A healthy culture will nurture supportive behaviors and quash the undesirable ones.

Step 3: Identify What’s Holding You Back. You’ll probably come up with a laundry list of things that you’ll want to fix. Take the time to find the areas of root cause.

Relationships: How do people across every level of the organization interact with one another? Do people seem to genuinely like and respect one another? Do people invest in getting to know one another? Simple things like smiles, laughter, and visible moments of appreciation are all good things to look for.

Commitments: Do people hold themselves accountable to promises and timelines they agree to? Are there signs of people pushing themselves a little bit – working a little longer, proactively following up, providing a heads up on potential issues? When circumstances result in a timeline being missed, is it met with excuses or a resetting of expectations?

Collaboration: Do things generally feel upbeat? Is it common for ideas to be expressed freely, or do people hold back? Are solutions prescribed by individuals or developed by teams? Are there regular and frequent status updates shared with all employees – the good, bad and ugly?

Step 4: Heed the Wisdom of Michael J. Fox. The exercise is about finding ways to make things better. Michael J. Fox has been famously quoted as saying, “I am careful not to confuse excellence for perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

Finally, remember that employees will look to leadership to set the tone. If leaders don’t consistently demonstrate respect for the people and work of an organization, there’s no way they will inspire a culture of trust.

Tom Sanders is the Director of Brand Strategy at Core Creative. Do you want to learn more about living your brand internally? Sign-up for our monthly newsletter.