Culture Shaping

Even today, 35 years after the June 20, 1975, movie release based on Peter Benchley’s novel, humming a tremulous few notes from the score of the movie “Jaws” is enough to conger up frightening scenes of the vicious Great White predator from the deep.

“There is a creature alive today…without passion, and without logic.  It lives to kill.  A mindless eating machine,” intones a dark and malignant voice while innocent swimmers disappear just off shore on an otherwise bright and joyous summer day at the beach.

Dr. Larry Senn, Chairman and Founder of Senn Delaney consulting, might suggest that many organizations would do well to hear the fearsome theme from Jaws in the hallways–or in the boardrooms–as a reminder of the forces arrayed against successful cultural change.

“We shape culture or it shapes us,” said Senn to an audience of the Capital City Organization Development Network (CCODN) group gathered at Franklin University Thursday, June 17, 2010.

Speaking in now familiar terms pioneered by Senn and his colleagues and expanded upon by others from the 1970s onward, Senn enumerated some of the “teeth” of the corporate jaws, including:

  • Resistance to change
  • Blaming and excuses
  • Hierarchy
  • Bureaucracy
  • We/They perspective
  • Low trust
  • Lack of openness
  • Stress/burnout
  • Lack of feedback
  • Unclear alignment at the top
  • Unclear mission/goals
  • Top-down communications

According to Senn, without sufficient self-awareness and accompanying healthy behaviors within the members of an  organization, the best-laid plans–strategies, mergers, initiatives, restructuring–are sure to be mauled by the sheer force of a destructive corporate culture.  Cultural jaws.

And if we follow the polyphydont shark analogy further, the situation is indeed grave, for if our focus is simply to remove one or many of the cultural incisors listed, above, it is certain to be replaced by another, which reveals the futility of this approach.

On the surface, corporate culture may be described as “the way we do things around here.”  No doubt this is true, but is “the way” healthy and supportive of individuals, work groups, and the organization as a whole?

Senn suggests replacing culture-by-chance with culture-by-purpose, shaping the aggregate corporate culture by positively influencing the behaviors–and thinking–of all work group members.

Culture should be “a set of values we want to live,” he said, “intentionally shaped.”

Senn emphasizes changes in thinking over changes in behavior alone because thought habits precede observable behaviors.  But “How do you change the thought habits of adults?” he asked.

In so many ways we are creatures of habit, habits that can ultimately blind us to the habits themselves.  Quite simply, we often don’t see.  Senn asserts that it is necessary to create “aha” moments that help us to see ourselves more clearly.  Such moments might be cultivated by the “DURAM” organization shaping model, below:

  1. Diagnose/define–what is the current state?
  2. Unfreeze/educate–to shift thinking and behaviors
  3. Reinforce–to ensure long-term change
  4. Apply–to business results
  5. Measure–to establish baseline and measure progress

The Learn-Do-Teach-Lead model complements this approach by eliciting increased personal insight, engagement, and action through each LDTL activity.

Of teaching, Senn emphasized that “we really cannot teach anything to anyone, but we can create conditions that help us to connect with the best of who we are.”

This sentiment echoes psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-87) who said that “the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning,” and that “such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another” (Rogers, Carl R.  1961.  On Becoming a Person. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 276).

Finally, Senn offered the “mood elevator,” a continuum of affective states related to general well-being and its opposite.  “Our mood is the biggest shadow we cast,” he said, affecting our quality of life and effectiveness on the job.

If we are aware of what moods we experience when we are at our best, and become adept at assessing–in the moment–our current mood, we increase the likelihood that we will do no harm by acting or interacting out of a low mood.

Furthermore, such present awareness is “a short-cut to shifting our essential value set” to higher and more noble emotions, said Senn.  We can thus change our mood set-point and the frequency distribution of our mood states.  More time in a higher mood state equals more time when we are at our best.

For more on culture shaping, see Winning Teams–Winning Cultures, by Larry Senn and Jim Hart.

Read it before you go swimming.

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8 Responses to Culture Shaping

  1. Mark Storey says:


    As the holder of an MBA in Organization Development, I have believed that “culture eats strategy for lunch,” for many years.

    Senn’s statement, “Culture should be “a set of values we want to live,” he said, “intentionally shaped,” resonnated with me. It also helped me reflect that my experience is that helping client companies understand the cultural impact is very difficult. Most executives and managers want a quick fix on a process, or procedures. Culture and values seem to nebulous to many of them, regardless of how many seminars they have attended, and fish they caught that were tossed across a workshop conference room.

    The biggest challenge isn’t altering the culture. In my humble opinion, the biggest challenge is helping the client leadership ‘get,’ that this ‘thing,’ called culture is foundational to their organizations, and is what needs to be worked on.

    Thanks for posting this information, Erik. It’s an important topic!

    • erikjul says:

      Mark: Of course you are correct. The first step toward any change is an awareness of the need to do so. What have you found that helps leaders to understand the importance of corporate culture and to take related culture-shaping actions?

  2. perry maughmer says:

    After reading Senn’s and Rogers’ statements, I think the fundamental challenge for business leaders is the struggle to balance the following needs: to produce results & creating lasting change.

    Intuitively we know that what we learn on our own is longer lasting and impactful but how do we develop the patience to focus on creating the environment for others to learn when we know it will “take too long”?

    As with everything else, there are no answers only the recognition is that we have to do both.

    Great thought provoking post, thanks.

  3. Catherine Lewis says:


    It is true we learn best, that which we have taught ourselves. This is especially true if the knowledge is gained through a concerted effort or in a classroom in the School of Hard Knocks.
    The real challenge is converting the newly acquired knowledge into new behaviors. So many times, organizations like individuals, continue to use “the way we have always done it” approaches and expect to see new results. To paraphrase Einstein, “That’s insane.”
    When planning to achieve new results, the organization’s planners needs to recognize these pitfalls and plan new behaviors and new measurements that incorporate the new methods learned. Perhaps all that change will loosen the hold of the, “this is the way we have always done it” thinking.
    Revisiting the plan and the results regularly (monthly?) would allow for carefully considered course corrections, and head off any inertial slides back to the “some old ways.”
    Positive change can occur, but it must be planned, monitored, evaluated and maintained before it can transform into a lasting change in an organization’s culture.

    Good topic, Jul. Thanks

    • erikjul says:

      Catherine: Thanks for your thoughts. Learning is a fascinating topic, and learning in the workplace is important because constant growth (change) is necessary in order to innovate and gain or retain competitive advantage.

      Because of this importance, it cannot be left to chance or even to the self-directed learning of a highly motivated and independent work-group member.

      Facilitated discovery activities can help a work-group leader and work-group member to identify possible learning topics based on (1) the learner’s current profile of knowledge/skills/abilities (KSAs) and (2) current or near-term job demands.

      The results of discovery can provide the basis for a learning action plan, and this, when executed, can help provide the measurement and reinforcement the you rightly mentioned as being essential to true thought and behavioral change.

      In the LDTL model, the work-group member will both (1) DO the learning work, and (2) DO the work facilitated by the learning. The work-group leader can assess, coach, and guide both.

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