Whose Responsibility is Culture Anyway?

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Jess Graham, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Upon reviewing an organizational strategy from an HR client recently, I came across an interesting finding. All of the executives had targets around profit, cost, and quality, but the HR executive had a very different theme to his strategic objectives: he is apparently the person responsible for culture.

It went like this:

“Culture” has become a popular buzzword, which is no surprise considering that it represents workplace behavior, and behavior is what gets results. But there’s an interesting trend around this topic: as the concept of culture change makes its way into an organization’s strategy, it’s often assigned to HR. This particular HR Executive had some important cultural topics assigned to him alone: Employee Engagement, Reward and Recognition, and Creating a High Performance Culture (in addition to the more traditional HR tasks).

This isn’t uncommon in a mature organization, however there’s a fatal flaw with this plan. One person and their HR team can’t change the culture of an entire organization themselves. The key to understanding why can be explained by this brilliant and all-encompassing, yet simple definition of culture:

Culture is defined by

patterns of behavior,

that are encouraged or discouraged,

by people, processes and systems

(purposefully or inadvertently),

over time.

(Aubrey Daniels International)

The field of behavioral science has proven, from nearly 100 years of research, that the most effective way to influence behavior is by providing meaningful, immediate consequences for the desired patterns of behavior. How could one HR team be responsible for all that encouraging and discouraging as the definition above indicates? Based on this knowledge, the most effective way to influence behavior would have to be from a group that has more access to employees to be able to provide the direction and follow up needed on a day-to-day basis.

There is one group of people that could pull this off. It’s those who have direct access to employees, see them frequently, and are responsible for their success, goal setting, recognition, and development, at the team level: the leadership of the organization. It’s great for HR to be a support mechanism, a knowledge resource, or even the inspiration for culture initiatives or culture change projects; but when it comes to shaping the culture (the patterns of behavior of a workforce), that can only be done if all of the leadership is engaged.

Leadership has the responsibility, starting at the top, to determine what the company culture is, and should be, and then to shape it through their everyday actions. A strong HR team partners with leadership to develop a vision for culture that can grow and change over time, and a strategy that all leaders can act on to achieve the desired outcomes.

An article from the Harvard Business Review (HR Can’t Change Company Culture by Itself) suggests a few practical steps HR can take to support these achievements:

  1. Facilitate the Research phase [understanding the current state]
  2. Convince leaders culture can change
  3. Teach them how to change it
  4. Have a formal “handoff” where the project is handed over to the business

The 3rd point, teaching leaders how to change culture, is the best opportunity for HR, or any knowledgeable consultant on the topic, to really help leaders understand what they can do to effect this type of change – by watching for the behaviors that demonstrate the type of culture the company wants to achieve, and providing frequent, immediate and meaningful consequences of those behaviors when they happen.

Additional Reading

(For more on developing a cultural strategy, check out “Developing a Cultural Strategy is as Easy as 1-2-3” on bsci21.org)

Gomez, F. (2017). Building a Culture that Supports Your Values. Aubrey Daniels International. https://www.aubreydaniels.com/sites/default/files/Building%20a%20Culture%20that%20Supports%20Values_v2.pdf

Newton, R. (2016, Nov. 2). HR Can’t Change Company Culture by Itself. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/11/hr-cant-change-company-culture-by-itself

Jess Graham, M.S., is an experienced business person, and formally trained behavior analyst who has been creating results in business through behavioral science for 15 years. She believes everyone deserves to work for, and be served by, businesses that are successful and healthy, and is especially passionate about helping others learn the behavioral technology to make this happen.

Jess has dedicated her career to making a positive impact through influencing workplace culture, leadership development, and service excellence, to affect business results and make a difference in the quality of the lives of employees and their clients. Through applying the science of behavior and continuous improvement, she has contributed to the success of change strategies in a wide range of businesses, including manufacturing, mental health, education and customer service settings. In coaching leaders at all levels, and sharing the science of behavior with thousands of individuals, she has loved seeing firsthand the positive effects of implementing behavior-based strategies in any type of workplace.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Western Michigan University, and Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from Florida State University. After 4 years of living and consulting abroad in Australia, Jess brought her skills and experience back to the corporate sector in the US and is currently enjoying an Organizational Development role in a Fortune Global 100 company. You can contact her at [email protected].

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