Arthur W. Page Society

The Coming Corporate Culture Stress Test

I was recently on a call with a large group of veteran public relations professionals discussing the impact of the coronavirus on the food industry. One executive observed that the pandemic was subjecting her company to a stress test. Almost every part of its business was being disrupted; almost every relationship was under pressure. Interestingly, she also observed that plant employees and their unions were cooperating with management to keep operations running. 

Ordinarily, the words unions, management and cooperation don’t appear in the same sentence. Yet in this case, the company had for many years demonstrated its commitment to health and safety. These values were not just platitudes used to mollify apprehensive workers; rather, they were cultural cornerstones proven by deeds, not words, long before they were needed to help address a difficult situation.

Culture can be defined as values put into practice. As with all crises, the pandemic will reveal which values actually mean something in terms of the way a corporation conducts business. Can a company that has long boasted of its commitment to diversity and inclusion cut its workforce in ways that have a vastly disproportionate impact on minorities? Can a company that claims to value employees above all else conduct a layoff by e-mail? Can a company that preaches work/family balance ignore the fact that many of its people have been working non-stop for weeks?

These contradictions are already generating criticism on social media and in conversations among co-workers. Many more contradictions are sure to arise as millions of employees are directed to return to their place of work and as layoffs spread. Management decisions will be questioned regarding fairness, risk, cost-sharing, flexibility, consistency with purpose statements, and stated or implied commitments made over past years.  

My guess is that large, well-established companies with strong cultures will emerge from this cultural stress test with the fewest breakdowns, at least for the next year or two. Corporations like Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Levi Strauss, and USAA have ways of working and making decisions that are strongly aligned with their corporate character. People in all parts of these organizations know which values and priorities to bring to bear in any situation.  

Fast-growth companies with a large percentage of new workers, and companies that have never invested in their cultures are likely to perform poorly in the cultural stress test. Contradictions, inconsistencies, and sheer thoughtlessness are going to be apparent to employees, business partners and, maybe, customers. As a result, trust will wither, and organizational efficiency will suffer. Progress will be harder. Agility will be elusive.

The stress test is going to become even more rigorous for any organization that decides to dramatically increase the proportion of its workforce that is no longer tied to an office. And if major operational changes are made at the same time, the difficulty will be compounded. Employee turnover will weaken the cultural norms established through shared experiences in an office or plant. Values will be nebulous to new workers who are expected to embrace them through a computer screen.  

The test may prove most daunting when one of these companies changes its values or adjusts cultural norms – actions that may be necessary to make the post-coronavirus organization operate efficiently. Explaining the changes and ensuring their adoption by people at all levels is going to require new approaches, new kinds of training and, perhaps, new levels of investment to kick start the evolved culture required for sustainable success.  

Companies with weak cultures are like cars without power steering. At freeway speeds you can barely tell the difference. But in the economic stop-and-go traffic we’re now facing, those who’ve made the investment in strong cultures are going to outmaneuver those who haven’t.

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