Your culture is your brand

A decade ago business culture was safe from public scrutiny. Unless you ran a service business with millions of customers, what went on in your own corridors stayed there.  Thousands of silent triumphs and defeats, assassinations and coups, benevolences and crimes locked up behind your shiny corporate exterior.

Today the glass ceiling has a glass floor, and windows too. The world is looking in. Social media changed everything. Employees expose their working environments. Customers turn off sales taps.  Bad behaviours destroy brands.

Reference Harvey Weinstein, the Australian Cricket team, the Russian Federation and Oxfam over the past few months. Globally the whole Aid sector now finds itself in a perilous position.  Already under competitive threat from the big audit firms, who claim to offer safer and more businesslike handling of donor funding, and a commitment to objective measurement of impact. Now overlay the brand impact of behaviours ranging from preferment to financial corruption to sexual misconduct. Aid brands are in a pot that’s boiling over. Have they noticed?Professor Adrian Furnham of the Norwegian Business School is well-published on bad behaviour in organisations. He’s interested in whether it’s down to ‘bad apples’ or ‘bad barrels’. As we have seen in our region, organisations much prefer the ‘bad apple’ explanation. It finds fault with specific individuals and is easy to deal with. Fire them, make apologies, prosecute them (still rare in East Africa) and move on.

Bad culture is tougher to admit, and harder to fix.  Indeed, I would suggest no fix is possible in the accepted sense of the word. Instead, a bad culture needs careful rebuilding over time. The ground rules must be rewritten. The silos smashed; and the counter-work behaviours made unacceptable. And this must be done from the bottom up. It cannot be mandated by the Board, or imposed by the CEO. Tricky – and way outside the comfort zone of many of our current leaders.

Furnham cites bad behaviours familiar to many of us. Cultures wherein the patterns of belief and behaviour are sick. People cheating at work because cheating is the norm. So, they cheat customers, the taxman, and the company. Rather more shocking is his assertion that organisations often turn a blind eye to bad behaviour because it is an alternative source of pay: “Frustrated supervisors, unable to reward their hard-working staff, may simply put in place a system that provides rewards: stock may be removed and charged to customers; days off are approved, sick days become a perk of the job.”

Furnham’s research aligns with my own experience in culture transformation: bad barrels are the real problem we should be tackling.



Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.




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