Some Culture Mechanics

By : Rudy Vidal | | Category : Corporate Culture culture management Customer Sat- Philosophy managing XCS xcs


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of CCNG members in Cincinnati, and the topic of contact center cultures came up, again.  Seems to be a popular theme lately, so I thought a couple of points on contact center culture management might be nice.

Because it’s rare that people agree on the definition of corporate culture, I feel I should put one in. So, here is my definition (since I don’t like wikipedia’s)

A set of generally accepted norms and values that result in the behavioral/operational paradigm of an organization.

Regardless of the type of organization, I have found some consistencies with cultures:

  • Cultures require management ownership
  • Cultures cannot be changed.  They are either shifted or destroyed
  • Cultural shifts cannot be mandated.  Mandate=Destroy
  • Cultures are not the employees
  • Cultures are usually the effect, not the cause.
  • Cultures are a labor of love.

Key Levers

Before any culture work takes place, management must assume responsibility for the current and future cultures.

Culture management is much like gardening.  When the harvest is poor, an expert can easily point to our errors: we planted at the wrong time, used the wrong soil, provided too much or too little water, etc.  However, when the harvest is plentiful, we can hardly take credit for the miracle of nature, when all we did was ensure the right conditions.  Management’s responsibility is to place the right components in the right conditions and keep the balance.

When boiled down I find the key levers to be

(Expectations + People&Capabilities + Environment)/Purpose

Ensure clear Expectations.
Ensure the right People have the right Capabilities (knowledge and tools)
Provide an Environment conducive to gaining the desired results.
Alignment of each to a clear and accepted Purpose

The shifts in culture are determined by the balance of these variables in relation to the corporate purpose.

Please note: All of these variables are under the sphere of management control.  Again, management ownership is key.

Simplified Dynamics
When the key levers are sufficiently aligned to the purpose of the organization, things tend to go well.  The culture rarely feels problematic and business issues can usually be addressed through specific and focused action – ie. changing a policy, adding a person, adjusting a process etc.

When one or more of these key levers are sufficiently misaligned with the overall purpose of the organization, the culture will shift in an effort to regain purpose.  The shifts seem to happen in 2 major ways:

1. The culture will compensate through one of the key levers  (ie: people may work harder) or

2. The culture will adopt a new value system to reconcile the imbalance and justify the misalignment.

An oversimplified example:
A contact center is asked to cut costs through headcount reductions, and expected to increase its service levels.  The culture may keep alignment to the purpose by working harder.  If this solves the issue and is sustainable, the shifted culture compensates.
If the adjustment is not sufficient to achieve the management expectations, a new value system may be adopted – “Management is Unreasonable”.  This newly added cultural value will help or hinder the culture’s effectiveness (alignment).  As before, if it helps, it is accepted and maintained.   If it does not help, yet another value will be formed to further cover the gap – “the harder we work, the more they expect”.

In short, any time the culture has a continuous perception of being ineffective or misaligned, a new wave of value adjustments will take place to address the gap.  This will continue until the culture sees itself realigned or until it reaches “shift saturation”; the point where it stops making  adjustments for the overall benefit of the system.  At this point, shifts become personal in nature (at the employee level), and the inherent power of cultural wisdom is lost.

We can’t over-emphasize the importance of communications (to ensure correct perceptions) and the maintenance of balance to avoid a a series of shifts that do not serve the company well.  It is also important to keep in mind that the key levers for change hold considerable power in managing the culture and the effectiveness of the business.

Cultures Drivers
Although I know organizational behaviorists will not appreciate this oversimplification, I’ll throw caution to the wind in exchange for a graphical explanation of  cause and effect.


–    Management expectations or beliefs, set the wheels in motion.
–    These expectations result in the creation of policies & procedures.
–    The policies and procedures create an environment which promotes (or not), the attainment of the management expectation.
–    The interaction of all these with employees (at all levels), produce a cultural paradigm.
–    This culture interacts with customers.

The power of WHY?
Most management with whom I speak regarding culture are looking to “change it” in order to gain better business results.  However, the culture is rarely the cause of good or bad business results.  Unless the business model or market expectations have drastically changed, I find the culture is usually effect of an underlying cause.  Although it may definitely be problematic, it is rarely the cause of the problem.

I believe many of the difficulties in today’s corporate cultures are the result of an unclear or undefined purpose.

Most companies know WHAT they do
Some companies know HOW they do it
Few companies know WHY they do it.
See Simon Sinek

Without this clarity of purpose, the culture is usually left to rely charismatic leadership, which when changed, causes havoc and great loss of direction.

Next post: considerations for creating culture shifts.

Rudy Vidal
Committed to Extreme Customer Loyalty

Copyright 2009 – Rudy Vidal