Adaptive Culture: Behaviours and Values

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In “Corporate Culture and Performance,” John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett explain the relationship between the visibility of an organization’s culture and its ability to change.1 They suggest that organizational culture is two-pronged: shared values and behavioural norms.


Values and behaviours vary in their visibility. Values reflect the innermost desires or ideals of the individual that are shared by most if not all of the group, such as profit, work-life balance or superior customer service. Behavioural norms on the other hand are visible; they may include the way members of the organization dress, how they approach customers, or how managers treat their employees.


Kotter and Heskett state that behavioural norms are much easier to change than shared values because of their visibility. An observable action is easier to address than an intangible belief. For example, if salespeople have been driven by monetary gain for many years, but the organization has decided to develop a stronger customer service reputation, it will be easier to change how salespeople speak to customers than change the internal motivations of the salespeople.


Their research shows that communication and cultural awareness can make values more visible. The more visible values are, the more adaptable they become. Kotter and Heskett call achieving this transparency “adaptive culture.”


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