Who owns organisational culture anyway?

I’ve no idea if you have thought about this, but someone asked me this question recently: ‘Who actually owns organisational culture?’

Spoiler alert: It’s not as simple as pointing to the CEO and the exec team or the HR department.

The Classic View: Top-Down Ownership

For years, the prevailing wisdom has been that culture starts at the top. CEOs and leadership teams were seen as the architects and guardians of organisational culture. Of course, it is true to some extent.

As management guru Peter Drucker is famously often misquoted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (He didn’t actually say those words). Leaders who recognise this often try to focus the organisations culture through vision and mission statements, specifying organisational values and behaviours and then policies.

But as we all know the reality of the culture people experience can be quite different to that espoused by the top.

Here’s the thing: while leaders can certainly influence culture, they can’t control it entirely. It’s like trying to herd cats – if the cats were your entire workforce, each with their own ideas and attitudes.

The HR Perspective

I’ve noticed in recent years that Human Resources has relabelled in many organisations as People and Culture.  In some ways they are the cultivators of the desired organisational culture, so I assume it makes sense.

Very often it’s HR and colleagues in L&D running those team-building exercises and plastering motivational posters on the walls.  Very often HR professionals see themselves as the custodians of organisational culture, responsible for nurturing and maintaining it. They create programmes, policies, and initiatives designed to reinforce the desired cultural norms.

But let’s face it, no matter how many  workshops HR organises, the desired culture can’t be forced to exist. It’s not something you can mandate or control from a single department.

How About if I said Everyone Owns Culture?

Here’s where it gets interesting. We are all beginning to recognise that organisational culture is actually co-created by everyone in the company; from the big cheese to the newest team member, we’re all culture owners.

I love organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s thought that, “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.” It’s the sum of all the daily interactions, decisions, and behaviours that happen across the organisation.  He also talks about ‘culture contribution’ rather than ‘culture fit’ when thinking of recruitment.

Think about it: Have you ever been part of a team that had its own inside jokes, unwritten rules, or ways of doing things? That’s culture in action, and it wasn’t handed down from on high – it evolved organically among the group.

The Reality is Complicated

So, if everyone owns culture, does that mean no one’s in charge? Not exactly. The truth is, organisational culture is a complex ecosystem with multiple influencers and stakeholders.

Leaders definitely set the tone and create the framework for culture to develop. How they role model cultural norms is mega important. After all, everyone is looking upstairs to the next layer in the organisational structure (even if matrixed).  We know this from countless employee surveys.

HR and L&D definitely provide tools and support to nurture it. But ultimately, it’s the collective actions and attitudes of everyone in the organisation that bring culture to life.

As organisational culture expert Edgar Schein notes, “Culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behaviour, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behaviour.”  It’s thus dynamism that thickens the plot.

Subcultures and Micro-Cultures

Chucking another spanner in the works, within any organisation, you’ll find subcultures and micro-cultures. These are like mini-ecosystems of culture that develop within specific teams, departments, or locations.

For instance, your marketing team might have a wildly different vibe than your finance department. Or the London office could feel like a different planet compared to your HQ in Paris. These subcultures can either complement or clash with the broader organisational culture.

As researchers have pointed out that organisational subcultures may actually boost, live harmoniously with, or compete with a dominant organisational culture. In a way it’s like having different flavours in one big ice-cream sundae – sometimes they mix well, other times, well, not so much.

The Invisible Force of Unwritten Rules

A huge chunk of organisational culture isn’t even visible. It’s made up of unwritten rules, shared assumptions, and collective beliefs that people pick up through osmosis or gradual, unconscious assimilation.

This has been called the “hidden dimension” of culture. It’s the stuff that’s so ingrained, people don’t even realise it’s there until someone breaks an unspoken rule.

Examples include:

  • Who can approach whom directly, or
  • Expectations around cc’ing others in emails, or
  • Use of humour in professional settings, or
  • Perceptions of leaving ‘on time’ versus sating late, or (my two personal favourites)
  • How credit is attributed for successful projects, or
  • How failures or mistakes are really treated versus how they are espoused

The Digital Twist: Remote Work and Culture

Just when we thought we had this culture thing all worked out, along comes remote work to shake things up. How do you maintain a cohesive culture when your team is spread across different time zones, connecting through screens?

It turns out, culture finds a way. As organisational behaviourist like Harvard professor Tsedal Neeley have noted, organisational culture doesn’t disappear when we’re not face-to-face; it just gets expressed differently. Those Slack, Teams or Zoom chats full of emojis? That’s culture adapting to the digital age.

So, Who Really Owns This?

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, clever clogs, if everyone owns culture but no one controls it, what are we supposed to do?”

Great question! While we can’t control culture per se, we can definitely influence it. Here are some thoughts:

1. Leaders walking the talk

Actions definitely speak louder than words. If you want a culture of creativity, you’ve got to be willing to take risks and embrace failure. No good soliciting new ideas from people, if we are then going to pooh-pooh them the moment they are suggested.  Organisational psychologist Edgar Schein put it best when he said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.”

2. HR can be cultivators of culture

HR professionals can think of themselves as culture gardeners. You can’t force a plant to grow, but you can create the right conditions for it to thrive. Focus on creating systems and processes that reinforce and nurture the desired culture.

3. Employees can be culture ambassadors

Employees aren’t just passive recipients of culture – they can be active ambassadors. Every interaction, decision, and behaviour contributes to the overall culture.  Open, honest communication is the lifeblood of a healthy culture that can be developed further. 

So What is the Bottom Line?

All of us, and none of us ‘own’ organisational culture. It’s a collective creation, constantly evolving and adapting. We can’t control it, but we can nurture it, guide it, and help it grow in positive directions.

Culture isn’t just some corporate buzzword or HR initiative. It’s the very essence of how we work together, solve problems, and create value. So it has to be ‘owned’ collectively.

What do you think? How does culture manifest in your organisation?

Now that we’ve explored who really owns organisational culture, I’m curious to hear about your experiences. Share your thoughts in the comments:

  1. What’s the most unique aspect of your company’s culture?
  2. Have you ever been part of shaping or changing your organization’s culture? What worked (or didn’t)?
  3. How has remote working affected your company’s culture?

Please comment The best insights often come from our collective experiences. Plus, I’ll be selecting a few of the most thought-provoking responses to feature in my next post on company cultures.

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