Is "Smart Person Disease" Ruining Your Culture?

Last Updated May 13, 2011 8:19 AM EDT

Ever had one of those life-defining epiphanies? I had one of those moments this week. I hope it will help you to create a world-class culture where you work.

The mental lightning strike happened at a joint Harvard Business School-USC Marshall alumni event. I was on a panel about leadership moderated by Warren Bennis. Warren asked the panelists about culture, and its relationship to leadership. One panelist said that culture is hard to see, and so it is hard to change. Another disagreed, saying you can walk into a retail establishment and get a sense of their culture right away. I was processing the two opposing views, getting ready to say my bit. And then it hit me. Here is the insight:

Most cultures suck because most managers haven't developed a taste for culture, in the same way most people haven't developed a taste for wine. They enjoy drinking wine, but few can point out the differences between a fine wine and an average one. Neither could I until I took a class where we tasted and dissected what makes a wine special, or swill. Managers can't tell the difference between an average culture and one that will produce world-changing innovation, because they can't sort out the subtleties. As a result, culture isn't a priority for them.

They look at Zappos, or Griffin Hospital, or Mayo, or the early days of Amgen, and the results impress them, but their minds immediately go to strategy, price points, unique intellectual property, or the efforts of a great leader. Because they don't taste the differences in culture, and sort out what these great places to work have that they don't, nothing happens.

And it gets worse. The smarter people are, the better educated in their field, the more likely they are to mistake an understanding of culture from the experience of it. Before I developed a taste for wine, I could have written a great essay on wine-making, but the $1000 wine opened at a special occasion didn't really taste much different from Two Buck Chuck. After learning to tell the difference, swill was undrinkable.

It's this "smart person disease" of mistaking the understanding for the experience that explains why organizational cultures are especially poor in academia, law firms, medical practices, and some high-tech organizations.

What you need in your organization is a critical mass of people who can taste the difference between average cultures and those that are hard-wired to change the world. How do you do that?

  1. Educate yourself about great cultures. Spend as much time as possible in and around amazing cultures at companies like Zappos, Whole Foods and others. Many provide tours and in turn, will introduce you to other outstanding cultures. Last week, Zappos' Tony Hsieh introduced me to the head of charity:water, Hsieh's charity. It is, in Tribal Leadership lingo, a "Stage Five" culture-the top of the mountain. It is a vital cause, and the culture they have created is allowing their organization to change the world. (In fact, their cause and the culture supporting it is so inspiring, my co-author and I are digging into our own wallets and will donate $2 for every book we sell here between now and May 25.)
  2. Experience lousy cultures. A friend, Sherif Abdou, CEO of Healthcare Partners in Nevada, takes his teams to places famous for lousy service, so they can learn the key differentiators.
  3. Educate your people by talking about the differences you see in culture, and how you'd rate where you work. When you get to the point where people have the epiphany-we have a swill culture-things will begin to shift.
Is there more to learn? Yes, my coauthors and I put everything we know about culture in a single book, Tribal Leadership. (You can get an overview here.)

What is your culture like: What makes it suck? Why is it great? What have you tried so far to make it better? Please comment below.

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Photo courtesy nessguide, CC 2.0.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.