An Anthropological View

Culture has long been the purview of anthropologists, but oddly, there are no previously published books that I can think of that offer an anthropological perspective on corporate culture and change. Into the breach step Malachi O’Connor and Barry Dornfeld, anthropologists with University of Pennsylvania Ph.D.s in folklore and communication, respectively, who turned their attention to management consulting, and more specifically to the study of corporate culture. In their manager-oriented manual, The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future, they ably explain “how culture drives strategic change.”

The anthropological perspective on culture and change is long overdue because, as the authors note, “behavior is culturally prescribed.” Thus, they address the issue of changing a company culture at its root level: the behavior of its employees. Starting from the familiar premise, attributed to Peter Drucker, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” O’Connor and Dornfeld offer useful advice on how to deal with the human side of strategy implementation: getting employees to accept needed change.

In 1881, British anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined culture like this: “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired…as a member of [a] society.” Other researchers later added the idea that cultures are social systems, the numerous parts of which are complexly interrelated. Over many decades, social anthropologists would draw several conclusions about tribal and national cultures: They are all different; they are not consciously designed, but instead grow organically as the result of such influences as the local environment, available technology, and the long process of trial and error called human experience; and they are far easier to destroy than to consciously build.


The concept of organizational or corporate culture is of more recent origin. (Warren Bennis and I could find no published references to the concept when we first discussed it at a gathering of social scientists at the Aspen Institute in 1973.) As the study of organizational culture has developed, however, it is clear that the insights of pioneering anthropologists about societies are broadly applicable to modern business organizations. Every company has a culture, and each one is unique, difficult to accurately describe or model, and hard to change. Additionally, most organizational cultures are complexly interrelated systems that initially tend to reflect the beliefs and values of their founders, which are, in turn, influenced by such factors as local customs and norms, the type of industry, and the technology employed.

Because the process of cultural genesis is largely unplanned, to later alter any major part of a system (the authors focus on strategy) requires modifying other parts to ensure compatibility and, thus, the effective functioning of the whole. That means, in effect, that Richard Sheridan’s shaping of Menlo’s culture from scratch was far easier than the task faced by leaders of established companies when they attempt to change existing cultures. O’Connor and Dornfeld usefully focus on the latter task.


Changing an existing culture, particularly in a large organization, is so hard because it’s analytically difficult to pinpoint precisely how any one part of a system interacts with any other part. Further, some parts can be devilishly hard to detect. For instance, the actual values of an organization are often hidden from view; therefore, it’s challenging to identify and measure them (even if the organization posts a list of “Our Values” on the lunchroom wall). Nonetheless, because people typically act in ways aimed at achieving what they value, it is possible to infer the true values of an organization by observing the behavior of its members. In practice, then, cultural change can be the most daunting of all social tasks, because it goes against what an organization’s members value. That’s why O’Connor and Dornfeld’s behavioral perspective is of practical use.

As difficult as a functioning culture is to identify, define, and change, it is the sine qua non of organizational performance, a fact Louis Gerstner discovered when he became CEO of then-troubled IBM in the early 1990s. Previously, Gerstner had earned a reputation for being a quantitatively oriented top executive, and he took on IBM’s turnaround believing that his rigorous management-by-the-numbers approach would be sufficient to get the job done. However—as Gerstner explained in his account of his tenure at IBM, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround (HarperBusiness, 2002)—he came to see that “culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.” He described how the reshaping of IBM’s culture became his prime leadership task. The method he used can be rendered in the words of O’Connor and Dornfeld: “Leaders can no longer push for results but must create pull for achieving them by mobilizing the passion, interests, and energy of others.”

Creating that pull is a tall order, which is made even more challenging by the paradoxical nature of cultures: They become dysfunctional if they are too weak, and equally dysfunctional if too strong. Weak cultures encourage members of an organization to do their own thing, which leads to a lack of focus, coordination, and effectiveness. Because there is no unifying, collective purpose, there is insufficient motivation and commitment. In contrast, as O’Connor and Dornfeld point out, strong cultures tend to become rigid, complacent, and susceptible to groupthink. Because members who dare to question fundamental organizational assumptions are viewed as disloyal, a shortage of healthy self-criticism develops, which leads to resistance to change and innovation. And, as we see below, a too-powerful culture can even take an unethical turn.