Let’s start with the question that precedes the question posed last week: How can business leaders define, establish, and maintain … in a word, engineer their desired corporate culture?

But first: While I appreciate the flattering suggestion many of you made that last week’s column “… may be the best KJR yet,” in my estimation that honor belongs to “A holiday card to the industry – 1999.”

And now, this week’s question, or perhaps questions: Is engineering culture – national or organizational – ethical?

My answer (and only my answer – I make no claim that my code of ethics is superior to anyone else’s): Yes.

What are the ethical boundaries leaders should not cross when engineering it? That’s a more difficult question.

In KJR’s usage culture is, in casual terms, “How we do things around here.” More precisely it’s “The learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment,” understanding that most of any employee’s environment consists of the behavior of the other employees they interact with, and especially the leaders and managers they interact with.

Culture is recursive. As successful implementation of a desired cultural trait begins with visible leader behavior, and has as its goal defining and achieving changes to how people behave, either cultural engineering is ethical, or else leadership itself is unethical.

Just my opinion:

  • Leading is ethical.
  • Failing to lead when leadership is called for is what’s unethical.
  • Unethical leadership is common; this doesn’t make leadership itself unethical.
  • Engineering an unethical culture is common; this doesn’t make cultural engineering itself unethical.

Now comes the hard part.

The tools for engineering culture available to leaders of large organizations are limited. Last week I described how the old-fashioned idea of a company newsletter could be adapted to the purpose – by presenting desired cultural traits and then describing how a team in the company did something that exemplified one or more of them.

One commenter used the term “propaganda” to describe this approach. But “propaganda” is, by definition, misleading or entirely false, so this use of the company newsletter would only count as propaganda if the team in question didn’t actually exist or hadn’t actually done what the newsletter described.

Imagine you lead a large organization, need to change its culture, and teams that exemplify what you’re looking for don’t, so far as you can tell, exist. Is it okay to invent one, or to distort real events almost beyond recognition in the interest of achieving the desirable goal of making your desired culture real?

From the perspective of ethical philosophy, the answer depends on whether you subscribe to consequentialism or deontology. Fortunately, we don’t have to dive that deep to answer this one: In an age of email and intranets, if you just make something up it’s too easy for employees to find out and tell their friends.

Better to engage in overt storytelling, making it clear the situation and team behavior you’re about to describe is fictional, and you want it to become factual.

Another tool at a leader’s disposal is the time-honored all-hands meeting. Business leaders commonly use the all-hands meeting to provide an update on the company’s financial situation. It’s good to share this information and even better if, as you share it, you use the opportunity to explain to the less financially literate employees how to interpret the financial instruments you’re sharing.

It’s best if, you spend less time on finances than you do on metrics associated with the various cultural traits you want to institute, being careful to apply the Seven C’s test to any and all metrics you establish.

It’s also a fine place to describe something the company has done that exemplifies one or more of the cultural traits you want to institute. This is a division-level or enterprise-level complement to the team-based storytelling in the newsletter.

Bob’s last word: As a leader, if you do present something the company has done to make your commitment to culture real, make sure you don’t appear to be taking personal credit for it. It’s something the company has done, not something you’ve done.

To stay out of trouble it’s best to avoid the word “I” altogether.

Bob’s sales pitch: If you’re looking for tools and techniques for changing organizational culture, you’ll find some in Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World, and Bare Bones Change Management: What You Shouldn’t Not Do.

And, a request: If you have read them I’d appreciate your taking the time to post a review on Amazon. Even a negative review helps, as the total number of reviews helps establish that the book is “real.”


Among the more aggravating verbal firefights plaguing the U.S. countryside is the question of how history should be taught in the public schools. Don’t worry – we’ll get to how this relates to you in a couple of hundred words or so. Patience, please!

On one side of the controversy we have those who advocate including only those episodes in our past that reflect when our forebears were at their best. On the other we have those who, at the extreme end, propose that unless we render an account of every wart and blemish in our country’s past … and that’s wart and blemish according to our current-day standards … then we’re lying to our children.

Just my opinion (stay patient – we’re almost there): Our grammar schools and middle schools should adopt the former view. It won’t really be history. Call it American Mythology. It would present the best of our past – those episodes in which America lived up to its finest aspirations. Its purpose would be to help children understand the core values of what America stands for, doing so through the powerful mechanism of storytelling.

High school is when students should start to discover the complexities and nuances of our nation’s past. Not an everything-we-ever-did-was-awful account – that would accomplish little. What it should help students discover is that circumstances are always more complicated than they appear to be on the surface; our nation’s leaders weren’t cardboard-cut-out saints (or sinners) but were complex human beings with all that this implies; that sometimes we lived up to our aspirations and sometimes we succumbed to our worst tendencies.

What on earth does this have with running a large organization?

More than you might think.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing the challenges of leading a largely remote workforce. While challenges abound, perhaps the most challenging of all the challenges is the challenge of establishing a widely adopted business culture – a shared understanding of what we stand for and how we do things around here. Call it “cultural engineering.”

When your workforce is small, leaders can engineer the culture through frequent interpersonal interactions. When it’s dispersed and remote, though, cultural engineering leading by example loses some of its effectiveness for the simple reason that employees aren’t in a position to see leaders leading by example.

One possible starting point is an often neglected but potentially potent leadership tool – the old-fashioned company newsletter.

Quite a few years ago I watched my then employer make use of this tool to remarkable effect. The format was uncomplicated – a short (~500 words) email. In addition to company news, it included a discussion of one of the company’s core values, and … and this was the not-so-secret sauce … it related a recent effort on the part of an employee or team that showed the company’s values in action.

The newsletter explained a desired cultural characteristic, illustrated it through storytelling, showed every employee that management noticed such things and valued them, and encouraged everyone to do something that would put their team in a future newsletter.

Having watched it in action I can testify that it worked. I also watched as a new management team axed the newsletter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company slowly lost its culture, substituting financial engineering as the single core value that supplanted the culture that had come before.

Bob’s last word: Peter Drucker stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While he neglected to explain whether it would do so more effectively if served with bacon and hash browns, he certainly had a point.

I’ve told the joke about the man who had a dog with no legs too many times by now. Every morning he had to take the dog out for a drag, which describes how management has to do its job in the absence of a strong company culture.

Cultural engineering is hard. But it isn’t a hard as managing without it.

Bob’s sales pitch: As long as I’m spouting off about one politicized policy issue, what the heck – here’s another: Am I the only one who agrees with the constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk that we should stop arguing about whether to include “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, drop the Pledge altogether, and in its place teach children to recite the Preamble to the Constitution?