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Organizational Culture

This model is based on Dr. Robert Hardy's book The Self-Defeating Organization. It defines the basic elements of an organization's culture and shows how they interact to create organizational norms that are institutionalized in the organization's infrastructure. Click on the model to explore the elements of organizational culture.

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Elements of Culture

What precisely is organizational culture?

If you have difficulty answering this question you are not alone. Ask any group of business professionals to define the elements of organizational culture and you will get a list — a long list. Ask them to explain the relationship between those elements and you will get a discussion, a long discussion. This is why most companies can describe their culture, but cannot define, analyze and change it in a meaningful way.

The theoretical basis for our work on culture comes from Dr. Robert Hardyís book The Self-Defeating Organization. In this book Hardy applies his model of Self-Defeating Behaviors to organizations to understand how cultures are formed, how they change, and why they become self-defeating at times. Hardyís work provides the conceptual framework and tools needed to define, analyze and change organizational culture.

Core Beliefs

Core Beliefs are the foundation of all organizational cultures. They are a set of beliefs about what makes the organization successful and unsuccessful. They are developed over time and through experience. Eventually they combine to form the organizationís “success formula.”

For example, an organization may notice than whenever someone takes personal responsibility for a new product it tends to succeed. When a new product lacks this ownership it tends to fade away. Therefore the organization may develop a Core Belief that a new product must have a product champion to succeed. Product Champion now becomes part of the companyís formula for success.

All of the other elements of organizational culture are developed to implement these Core Beliefs. Therefore, any lasting changes in organizational culture must start by changing the organizationís Core Beliefs.


Core Beliefs have strong positive and negative emotions associated with them. The positive emotions are expressed as values. Every Core Belief holds a promise of success that is transformed into a set of values. “We value the tenacity and risk taking that individual champions bring to the organization!”

Values clarification can be a productive activity in providing guidance to employees. It reinforces the behaviors that the organization expects its employees to exhibit. But changing values will not change culture — adopting values that are inconsistent with an organizationís Core Beliefs will not survive for long.

Values and Fears combine to establish the boundaries for acceptable behaviors and establish organizational norms — how we do things around here.


Every Core Belief also has an associated fear of what will happen if the organization ignores the belief; “Without champions the bureaucracy will micro-manage and kill new products!” Therefore any product that does not have a champion is doomed to failure.

Fears often control behaviors more than values because they have a physiological aspect to them. When we are scared, for example, adrenaline pumps into our system and we experience anxiety. The fear of getting in an accident stops us from running red lights. When management tries to change culture by increasing fear, it is like trying to get people to run a red light by threatening to hurt them. The employees soon realizes they are damned if they do and damned if they donít, so they look for some way to hide and avoid the issue.

Values and Fears combine to establish the boundaries for acceptable behaviors and establish organizational norms — how we do things around here.


Values and fears form the boundaries of normative behaviors — also known as “how we do things around here!” Product champions, for example, routinely ignore management, exaggerate the positive, and work outside of their areas of responsibility to get things done. The Champion may be an expert in one area, but behaves as a generalist, doing what ever it takes to get the product developed.

Together, values and fears create the classical psychological conditioning of approach and avoidance. People are designed to approach pleasure and avoid pain. Rewarding cultural values creates pleasure and punishing deviation from those values creates pain. This explains the power behind the traditional carrot and stick approach to managing people.


Normative behaviors become institutionalized in the organizationís infrastructure. Infrastructure establishes roles, rules and structure to support the Core Beliefs. Accountability is achieved by developing a system of rewards and punishments — the things the culture values are rewarded and the things it fears are punished. Now the organizationís Core Beliefs are locked into the “way we do things around here.”

Changing organizational infrastructure can improve efficiency and performance. But changes in infrastructure that are inconsistent with the organizationís Core Beliefs will not last; they become just another management program that will pass in time.

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