During my 20+ years as a consultant, I have had the great pleasure of working with some of Swedens largest, international organizations and have seen them from the inside, from central positions. Mostly they try to create (centrally) structures to support the different parts of the business from inside out and they also try to shape a new and different culture by creating values and culture frameworks and wanted behaviors using large and well-known consultant companies (who was ever fired for hiring these giant expert firms, as they say).

Usually, it’s HR who is in charge of these endeavors, which is quite interesting, as HR often is regarded as not being as important to the organizational success as, for example, the CFO and the financial measures. HR, being responsible for the people and organizational development, represents the “soft skills, not so important, numbers is what really matters” – kind of view that I have often met in management teams. So, the people who are responsible for creating the backbone and core organizational structures, as well as the culture and the values the organization should live and breath, are not seen as important as the people performing number crunching activities, budgeting and follow up of quarterly financial targets. Wow. What a misunderstanding.

Anyway, this article was supposed to be about the misfit between structure and culture, so let’s get back on track 😉

For any organization to be successful, you need to have a fit between the culture (values and behaviors) on one hand, and the structures (methods, processes, systems) on the other hand. If not, you will experience confusion around what is said and what is really done. Regardless if you value winning, money, status and competition or teamwork, higher purpose, whole people and collaboration, you need to have this fit between the values that you say you want, and the structures that make up the business “way of working”, often consisting of different tools, processes and IT-systems. Unfortunately, too often, I have seen the misfit in large companies. The kind of behaviors that we say we want and need for success, don’t match the kind of behaviors that are rewarded and built into control mechanisms, processes and systems. Instead, we say one thing with our mouths and do another with our hands.


  • Let’s say we value the importance of trust between people. It does not fit well with structures of control. If you really trust somebody, why would you need to control that same person by requiring detailed reports every week or month? If you trust somebody, you give them the possibility to succeed by providing the tools, the competence and all other prerequisites that are necessary for that person to grow and perform. And then you get out of their way and trust them to get the job done.
  • Imagine your company values are creativity and innovation, and then the structured, detailed job descriptions limit people by describing what they are supposed to do and not. This is not a very effective way to create a foundation for being innovative. If we use job descriptions and roles, we need to make them as wide and flexible as possible and to let people go outside their role if this is what makes them tick (it’s also a good way of knowing if people are really thriving in their current role). Only when you are free to think and do and not restricted by detailed instructions, you can release creativity in people.
  • Let’s say that cooperation is an important organizational value. But the performance framework reward individual performance. If collaboration is important, you need to reward collaboration, not individual performance (simple, right? :)) A way to do that is to reward the team instead of the individual. And if individuals should be rewarded within the team for extraordinary performance, you can leave that to the employees to decide who should get the biggest part – they know very well who made the most effort and this way of rewarding individuals will not hurt cooperation.
  • Imagine that the organization want people and teams to engage with their whole selves for the greater good of the whole organization and then they give them numerical targets, broken down from numbers created by the management team. Instead, if you want employees whole engagement, let them create their own objectives and link their own measures to them and then link them to overall company targets.
  • Let’s imagine that equality is an important value. They say that all employees have the same value, and we are all equally valuable to the organization (or at least that’s what people are told). Then they promote certain persons to a better title or a higher bonus according to the succession process, behind the back of the rest of the team. Instead, involve the peers in the process of nominating managers and specialists. You will create a lot less envy, competition and social pain.
  • Or let’s say diversity is extremely important for us, but where are the women in top management? And where are the different ethnic people that we see in marketing campaigns spread about our company?
  • Maybe you value performance and that employees are living the “right” behaviors in the company. Then you reward them on a scale from 1-5 in a formal performance rating exercise with a fixed distribution. “My manager says I did a great job last year, but there aren’t any fives left, so I got a four”. Guess who is disengaged instead of motivated.

The above situations are totally contradictory and create a misfit between what people hear are the organizational values (the wanted culture) and what is perceived as really happening in the organization (the processes and frameworks). The effect is a feeling of a lack of fairness and social pain, which is just as harmful and real as physical pain. And we don’t achieve a better, more engaging place to work in, if we don’t think about how we design the structures in line with the wanted culture.

Instead of working against peoples brains, we need to work with how we are built as human beings. Maybe learn something new about the brain and social pain and what happens when you are excluded, when others’s steal your customers to reach their sales quota or when you are regarded as “guilty” because you made a wrong decision. These situations create frightened, sub-optimizing, competing employees, who will stab peers in the back if it would give them an advantage and I can tell you one thing: It does not breed trust, innovation, collaboration and creativity. And yet, these are the values that most organizations say they want and need for the future.

When I say that I trust you, I also need to show that by giving you the freedom to be able to succeed. When you check, act police and control people and teams, you communicate that you don’t really know if they have made the right decision, or if they have performed well and behaved in a manner that the company would approve of. We react with fear of doing the wrong things, instead of becoming inspired and motivated and try new things. It’s when we trust, we can release creativity, not if we limit and control by closing people in rigid job descriptions (in this case we get people who would think things like “I won’t do that, since it’s not in my job description”). If innovation and creativity is what we need most in todays businesses, we need to think about the effect when we say we need people to align with certain competence requirements and limit their innovation capacity by describing in detail what they are supposed be doing and not doing.

Come to Agile People Sweden and learn how to work with the brain and manage for creativity, innovation, collaboration and happiness!