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Your Corporate Culture: Real or Imaginary?

February 16, 2015 » Successful/Effective Leadership

Every company has a corporate culture it designs and a corporate culture it lives. The question is, are the two the same?

Remember Enron?

Its leaders bankrupted the company through fraud and went to jail with lengthy sentences. These were the “values” displayed in the lobby – values that supposedly communicated Enron’s corporate culture to the public:





Quite the gap between the words chosen to define the imaginary culture and the leadership behavior that served as the foundation of the real culture at this company, wouldn’t you say?

If there were a plaque displayed in the lobby to communicate the real corporate culture at Enron, it would have read:

Lack of Integrity

Lack of Communication

Lack of Respect

Lack of Excellence

What kind of corporate culture does your organization have? Does the culture you claim for public display differ from the one your workers live and breathe on the inside?

Before you answer, let me explain.

What is Corporate Culture?

First, have a look at this contemporary dictionary definition of corporate culture:

The shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation; and the professional atmosphere that grows from this and affects behavior and performance.

In short, corporate culture is a shared sense of identity.

I’m suggesting that there are really two corporate cultures: the designed, imaginary one that’s all about words and claims, and the real one that’s all about behavior and actions.

Can a Corporate Culture Really Be Imaginary?

The designed imaginary culture, the one about words and claims, is a public relations exercise that represents what we imagine (sometimes in our wildest dreams) to be true. It is the corporate culture that we like to think is our culture. It sounds good. It looks good to the public and potential hires. It has all the right words in it.

The imaginary culture is the corporate culture that the organization puts together with internal and external consultants – the “Photoshopped”, designed version. It’s a wish list. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s a game that organizations play with themselves and the society they inhabit. In a perfect world, one in which words become our reality, this approach is golden.


Believe it or not, I’ve actually led the process of defining a company’s corporate culture many times. It’s an exercise filled with good intentions but little else. The procedure is designed to produce a document that will provide the social glue to hold the organization together: a document that offers guidelines for behavior within the organization along with core values to guide employees so that they know what to do and what not to do – a code of conduct. Unfortunately, many that I have reviewed end up looking like they’ve been written by the corporation’s ad agency and then turned into a wall plaque that nobody pays attention to.

It Doesn’t Take Long to Recognize a Company’s Real Corporate Culture

The real corporate culture, the one about behavior and actions, is the truth about who we are and how we do things. It is a powerful force that can either drive the organization to produce outstanding results or dig itself an early grave.

If the imaginary, “Photoshopped”, designed version of a company’s corporate culture is supported and reinforced by corporate leadership and actually becomes the shared identity of the organization, then it becomes the real corporate culture. If, as more often is the case, the designed version is not supported and reinforced by corporate leadership, then the real corporate culture defaults to a shared identity that is based on what is actually happening in the organization. This default version takes over from the imaginary, designed version and becomes the real corporate culture.

This real corporate culture is what people pay attention to. It’s a pattern of values, beliefs, behavioral norms and practices that evolve in an organization based on the actions and behaviors of its leaders: what they pay attention to, what they reward, what they punish and where and how they allocate resources. It’s about respect or lack thereof: how they treat employees, colleagues, superiors, clients, suppliers, customers and shareholders.

If you want a corporate culture that is highly engaged, innovative, collaborative, competitive and customer focused – one that values integrity, mutual respect, accountability and diversity – then the corporate culture must focus on its leaders and employees, who the leaders and employees are, and how they get things done to accomplish those goals.

A Real Life Example

Let’s quickly explore the published corporate culture statement of a highly successful corporation and ask the question, “Is it a statement describing a real or imaginary culture?”

See if you can guess the business of the corporation by reading its mission and values.

Our Mission

Our roadmap starts with our mission, which is enduring. It declares our purpose as a company and serves as the standard against which we weigh our actions and decisions.

  • To refresh the world…
  • To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…
  • To create value and make a difference…

Know the product or service yet?

Maybe the values will help.

Our Values

Our values serve as a compass for our actions and describe how we behave in the world.

  • Leadership: The courage to shape a better future
  • Collaboration: Leverage collective genius
  • Integrity: Be real
  • Accountability: If it is to be; it’s up to me
  • Passion: Committed in heart and mind
  • Diversity: As inclusive as our brands
  • Quality: What we do, we do well

Have you guessed this company’s business yet? You must admit that the Mission Statement is “refreshing”, but is it an example of “being real”? You be the judge.

I will tell you that it is one of the world’s most successful corporations – one that garners tremendous respect for its business acumen, longevity, ability to create shareholder value and it ain’t too shabby with the executive bonuses either. When it comes to producing results, this organization has few equals worldwide. If the company’s results are directly related to the culture suggested in the mission and values, then I would recommend these as models for all!

What We Can Learn from this Example

Now we must ask the most important question: “Do the Mission Statement and Values describe a real or imaginary culture at this company?”

The answer is, I don’t know and neither do you, unless you work there or have a business relationship with the organization. I’m not making accusations here, so the name of the corporation is not important. You can’t knock success. But it would be interesting to know if there is a disparity between the published and the real culture.


Because over the years I’ve found that many successful organizations that have great results, focus on results at the expense of, and to the detriment of, all else!

Let me explain. The only way to understand the real corporate culture, apart from being an employee or having a direct business relationship, is to ask people from middle management and down if there are any disparities between the published corporate culture statements and what really happens behind the scenes. If the answer is “yes”, then the next question is, “How would you describe the discrepancy?”

When middle managers reported that there was indeed a discrepancy, here is what I came up with as the most likely real culture, the one that should appear on the plaque in the lobby:

Kiss up.

Kick down.

Produce results.

Wear the crown.

In other words, what people saw from the leaders within their organization was behavior showing respect on the way up the ladder, but showing disrespect on the way down. As long as leaders produced results, they continued to be rewarded even if those rewards were garnered at the expense of the relationships with those they led.

In such a case, people get the message pretty quick: the only thing that matters around here is results. Relationships with employees are not part of the equation. If that’s what is rewarded, the path ahead for the rest is clear: what gets rewarded, gets repeated.

How Does Your Organization Measure Up?

How are people rewarded and promoted in your organization? Are rewards and promotions based on the published, designed version of your corporate culture or the real version? Is your stated corporate culture an imaginary or real one?


When leaders don’t walk the talk of an innovative, competitive, customer-focused organization – one that values integrity, mutual respect, collaboration, accountability, diversity and, most importantly, a positive, supportive, collegial relationship with the employees who make corporate success possible – then the talk becomes meaningless.

The effects of this kind of leadership and culture are anything but pretty.

  • Employees become unhappy and unproductive
  • Relationships disintegrate and become less and less important
  • Attitudes become dysfunctional
  • Morale deteriorates
  • Lack of trust permeates interactions
  • Employees become detached to protect themselves
  • Any positive energy the organization might have had quickly dissipates
  • Disgruntled employees talk and the result is that the corporate culture is anything but a magnet for talent
  • A culture that rewards producers regardless of their tactics becomes a toxic culture
  • A toxic culture produces chronic stress in its employees, which in turn, has been linked to high blood pressure, sleep problems and anxiety
  • The best people leave and are replaced by people who believe the imaginary corporate culture statement
  • The cycle begins again

No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it. Jack Welch

What Kind of Real Corporate Culture Does a Successful Future Require?

One that is both customer-focused (results-oriented, innovative, competitive) and employee-centric (collaborative, relationship-oriented, respectful, supportive, collegial and positive): a results with relationship corporate culture – not the kiss up, kick down variety.


Because if there are two key issues (PWC’s 17th annual global CEO report) for corporations going forward, they are:

  • An increased focus on customers – an “always on customer experience”.
  • Rising concerns about the availability of the talent needed to succeed.

Much of the current talent pool is comprised of Millennials (Gen Y), whose work habits and preferences are having and will continue to have a dramatic impact on the workplace, contract workers and temporary employees. As will Generation Z (those born after 1995, representing 25% of the North American population) who have been characterized as educated, industrious, collaborative and sophisticated. This first tribe of “digital natives” as they have been called will soon enter and impact the workplace. The result is that both your present and future workplace require a culture that:

  • Is clear about its sense of purpose and values.
  • Attracts the best people, whether full-time, part-time or limited time.
  • Ensures the cultural environment enables them to thrive and work well together.
  • Focuses on the ever changing needs of its customers with an emphasis on strategies for increased and sustained customer interaction (i.e., turning products into services and vice versa).
  • Is employee-centric: a full-time, collaborative partnership with highly engaged employees, managers and leaders, where the boss is a coach and mentor.
  • Presents a challenging, innovative workplace where people really can make a difference; where they can invest in themselves and their futures; where they can enjoy flexible work schedules, work-life integration and balance. Perks, such as yoga classes, fitness rooms, ping pong and pool tables, ice cream coolers, Friday Happy Hours, free beverages, food and maybe even a smartphone thrown into the mix are certainly not required but these tend to complement a winning culture and, at least, make a losing culture bearable until disgruntled employees find new employment.
Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. Stephen R. Covey Click To Tweet

How would you describe your corporate culture? Is it a kiss up, kick down culture that rewards producers regardless of their tactics or treatment of employees? Will it work for Millennials and Gen Z?

 Your Employees’ Lament?

 We struggle to achieve our results in an innovative, collaborative, collegial, customer-focused and timely manner. 

We shouldn’t have to struggle to be supported, respected and accepted as partners in the organization we serve.

If this is what you might imagine your employees saying or thinking, you have some work to do.

The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. Edgar Schein, Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management.

Today’s rapidly evolving business world requires successful/effective leaders who:

  • Focus on results with, not at the expense of, the relationship with employees
  • Model the behaviors required – collaboration, innovation, collegiality, teamwork, integrity, respect and mutual trust
  • Are customer-focused, who have an “always on customer experience” while, at the same time, are employee-centric – not as an afterthought but with equal urgency, an “always on employee experience” – 24/7/365
  • Realize that you can’t have an engaged, collaborative, innovative, competitive, committed organization without matching employees
  • Model corporate values as coaches and mentors instead of as bosses – the kinds of leaders that you just don’t want to disappoint because they treat people with respect and dignity
  • Begin to transform the way the organization thinks about work and the way people actually work – moving from command and control to empowerment, where everyone is responsible as a leader to model those behaviors and practices the organization values

In this economy, only the inventive will survive – and only trusted employees have the room they need to invent your future. Ted Coine, Co-Author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive.

Questions for Today’s Corporate Leaders

If you’re a current, imminent or prospective corporate leader, take a minute to ask yourself:

  1. Do I understand what our real corporate culture is? Do I care?
  2. Do I have successful/effective leaders managing our organization who communicate and model in thought, word and deed, “what we stand for” and “what we value”?
  3. Do I see the need to change our corporate culture to prepare for the future? To more clearly align our corporate purpose and values to produce outstanding results through trusted, highly engaged leaders, managers and employees in a collegial, collaborative, innovative, committed environment. To formulate and implement a winning culture: one that is equal parts customer-focused and employee-centric – a real collaborative partnership with both customers and employees, not an imaginary one?

If you answered “no” to any of the three questions, if you don’t know or care what your real culture is, if you don’t have leaders in your organization who “walk the talk”, or if you don’t see the need to change “to invent your future”, you may not be part of your company’s future, because it may not have one.

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Eleanor Roosevelt Click To Tweet

Is it time to review and/or change your culture to prepare for your future?

Remember, to act differently, you must think differently.

 Culture can hinder progress—or, with proper foresight and training, it can help smooth the way toward change. Ken Blanchard


Light a candle in your organization!


Cartoons courtesy of Tom Fishburne at

If you want to know the kind of leaders necessary for the new corporate culture, read the following blogs:

What Successful/Effective Leaders Must BE

Successful Effective vs. Successful/Ineffective Leadership

What Is Your Leadership Relating Style?

How Successful Leaders Manage Their Emotions


Dr. Don MacRae is the author and passionate leader of Situational Communication® and the CEO of Lachlan Enterprises Incorporated (The Lachlan Group).

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