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Yes culture eats strategy... But dont ignore how hungry personality can be

culture eatsstrategy

The impact of personality in creating different types of cultures 

In this blog article we explore how it is often groups of similarly motivated personalities that impact and direct culture, and we tell you about a tool that can assist you in unpacking and understanding cultural sub streams as well as the personality groups that drive them in your organisation..


By Danie Eksteen - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is what Peter Drucker famously said, and now the book ‘Culture eats strategy for lunch’[1] will soon hit the shelves (dinner is still up for the taking). Point is: the importance of culture in organisational success is fundamental. But what is culture and what is the impact of personality on culture?

We have often argued that organisational culture is simply a representation of the values of the most dominant senior leader(s). But it’s a little more complicated than that. When a group of individuals is thrown together (what we call an organisation), with many strong characters part of the mix, there is always the possibility that your organisation’s culture might not be the uniform singular ‘balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs…’[2], but rather a concoction of subcultures – and not quite the thoroughbred you hoped it to be!

In this blog article we explore how it is often groups of similarly motivated personalities that impact and direct culture, and we tell you about a tool that can assist you in unpacking and understanding cultural sub streams as well as the personality groups that drive them in your organisation.


We recently came across some thinking by Edgar Schein, the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management[3] (i.e. when he speaks we listen). Schein suggested that there are at least three separate groups of professions (or roles), which each form their own subculture in large corporations (though we have seen this at play in smaller organisations too). The three groups’ attitudes about people, money, work, time, technology and authority can lead to major disagreements and conflict. And conflict is a BIG issue in business – in a previous Blog Article (Some thoughts about leading teams and team conflict, 2012) we mentioned that the UK is estimated to lose ‘370 million working days every year’ due to work conflict[4].

Schein describes these three subcultures or currents in the organisational culture as follows:

The Operational Subculture

In Schein’s language the Operational subculture is formed by the line managers, the ones who have to get products and services out. They appreciate that nothing gets done without people and that effective collaboration in teams is essential for any business success. They believe business depends on capable and reliable people and, as leaders, they are often connoisseurs of human character and getting the best out of people.

Vis-á-vis the other two subcultures, they likely have a lower level of appreciation for things like raising capital or less gut feel for the role and importance of finance in overall operations. They understand that technology is important and adds value, but believe that people ultimately make it work well.

The Executive Subculture

Schein calls the second subculture the Executive Culture, typically driven by the CEO and finance-oriented staff. Though they may understand and support human capital and culture strategy related issues, their passion and instinct lies in steering the cash flow that keeps the organisation alive and they have their eye on (and reporting on) the financial bottom line. Schein says they are competitive and see themselves as ‘lone heroes’ where the buck stops.

Of the three groups, they are most likely at risk of seeing people (and making them feel) as a means to an end (as opposed to an end in themselves). The ‘top floor’ (or the HQ in another city/ country) keeps them comfortably away from having to deal with the emotion of people-related decisions. 

The Engineering (Tech/IT) Subculture

Schein’s third subculture is that formed by the technology driven positions/ roles. They are driven and challenged by analytical problems and optimised processes. Their ideal world has humans designed out of it, and systems and machines taking over their roles.

In summary, Schein says that the Operationals see people as potential valuable stakeholders, the Executives see them as expendable resources and Engineers see them as a bit of a nuisance that they would much rather go without. It is easy to see the potential for differences between culture streams and even outright conflict between these three approaches.


So, in comes Relationship Awareness Theory – the work of US psychologist Dr. Elias Porter – and, to our mind, a very interesting overlap between the thinking of Schein and Porter.SDI profiles 

Porter developed the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI®) focused on building understanding, awareness and consciousness of self and others in a team context and in conflict. Porter asked what the differences are in core motivation in people’s behaviours in relationship with others and he identified seven categories that provide a rich tapestry of Relationship Awareness based personality groupings.

The three main groups in Porter’s model (there are seven in total), which is visually expressed as a colourful triangle, are as follows:

Blue: The altruistic nurturing personality

The Blue category personalities are individuals that in relation to others are most likely to have a concern for others’ protection, growth and welfare. Blue leaders are generally open and responsive to the needs of others, they seek ways to help others, trying to make life easier for others, ensuring others reach their potential and are valued. They are inclined to defend the rights of others.

The environment (culture) they prefer to operate in (and subculture they are likely to create) is open, friendly, helpful, considerate, supportive, enhancing, trusting, socially sensitive, sincere, loyal, compassionate, respectful and humanitarian.

We reckon the Blue personality sounds very similar to Schein’s Operational Culture.

Red: The assertive directing personality

The Red category personalities are individuals that in relation to others usually have a concern for task accomplishment; the organisation of people, time, money and any other resources to achieve desired results. They generally feel most comfortable in the position of providing leadership and are able to set the goals for and direct the actions of others.

The environment (culture) they mostly prefer to operate in (and subculture they are likely to create) is one that Porter describes as progressive, innovative, evocative, challenging, fast-moving, stimulating, competitive and creative, with new levels of opportunity and potential for personal advancement, reward and development.

To us Porter’s Red personalities sound very similar to Schein’s Executive Culture.

Green: Analytic autonomizing personality

The Green category personalities are individuals that in relation to others generally would have preferred to be on their own and have a concern for assuring that things have been properly thought out and that meaningful order is established and maintained. They tend to value being objective, right, principled, in control of their emotions, practical, cautious and thorough.

The environment (culture) they prefer to operate in (and subculture they are likely to create) is one of clarity, logic, precision, utility, durability, efficiency, reliability, organized individualism, effective use of resources, individual decision making, clear supportable authentic criteria for decision making and researched recommendations.

Though the overlap is a little more subtle, to us the Green personalities sound rather similar to Schein’s Engineering Culture.

[For purposes of this blog article we won’t discuss the other four SDI groups identified by Porter, suffice to say that they are further nuanced combinations of the three core groups (colours) discussed – all of which show profile shifts in conflict circumstances). Please contact us if you want more information about SDI and how it can positively impact your organisational culture]


It is said that Schein identified the three subcultures when he got involved with an MIT colleague who was studying the efforts to install more effective anti-disaster systems at a nuclear power plant. The operations managers demanded training as they ‘knew’ that good team skills could keep the plant running. The Engineers preferred a redesign, so they would need fewer human operators and consequent human error, and the Executives ignored the operators and blocked the engineers spending because if you allow engineers/ techies to design what they want ‘they will bankrupt all of us’.

We don’t know how the nuclear power plant example was resolved, but we do know that SDI has the ability to unlock such situations. It does so by giving people insight into their different motivations and a respect for the necessity of the other approaches in an integrated high performing culture; rather than subcultures simply existing side by side uncomfortably and often in conflict.


The data on both the positive impact of a strong culture and the negative impact of a bad conflict-ridden culture on the organisational bottom line is well documented. If you have been in the corporate world for some years, you will probably have found it easy to list a couple of individuals/ groups you have encountered, who you can associate with Schein and Porter’s categorisations. And you will likely have many examples of how their totally different takes on issues (affected by their subculture – Schein – or motivation behind behaviours – Porter) have led to, or are currently the reason for, major conflict in the work environment or have even led to the downfall of organisations.

Strategic Human Capital Consulting is an accredited provider of two different tools that can help you address the personality/ subculture/ conflict issues that may be negatively impacting the culture in your organisation. These tools enable us to objectively identify and raise individual and collective awareness of the things that motivate individuals and subcultures within an organisation and the impact this has on the team and organisation. \

We also find these tools extremely useful for coaching key individuals to help them identify these personality or subcultures and manage their relationships appropriately. The first tool is Porter’s SDI[5] and the second, which is very useful for unlocking conflict amongst senior leaders, is Worth Ethic’s Alpha Personality Assessment[6].

Contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if you need more information on how we can help you improve the culture in your organisation – to reduce conflict, increase productivity and unlock creativity.



[1] Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch: The Secret of Extraordinary Results, Curt Coffman and Dr Kathie Sorenson (at the time of this Blog the book was yet to be released)   
[2] Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, Shawn Parr, Fast Company
[3] The Cult of Three Cultures – The sum of operational, executive, and engineering cultures is greater than the corporate whole, Art Kleiner, strategy+business, Q3 2001, Issue 24
[4] Fight, flight or face it? Celebrating the effective management of conflict at work, A global research report by OPP® in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, July 2008


#4 Shelton
2015-06-04 12:16
Hello! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading your posts.
#3 Edward Hampton
2013-09-10 15:19


It just so happens this was a sub-point I addressed as part of my presentation at the RAC 2013. In a nutshell:

a. The working definitions I have developed during a 30 plus year OD career is

1) "the collective expression of individual choices."

I use this definition for org culture work and when teaching about org culture because it reminds me there are two key focal points: the group and the individual. Both focal points both independently and interdependentl y drive actions and behaviors known as organizational culture. If one explicitly addresses one but not the other, then one will not effectively affect org culture. In other words, if I address culture as a group issue, then I fail to get into the individual choice factors. Rarely is culture approached as an issue of individual development but if so but the group of which that person is a member is not considered, then the attempt to change culture will fail.

2) My more comprehensive working definition is "A prevailing collective and patterned expression of individual choices influenced by values and expressed via relationships"

This definition reminds me that there is an enduring quality of org culture to generate patterns of behaviors. In other words, the "collective expression" is presented as patterns that are repeated. These patterns stem from both sociological and psychological factors. Hence the idea of relationship.

Further there are two key concepts to understanding both how these prevailing choices are generated as well as how our PoPS and SDI can be helpful. The two concepts are "strange attractors" and "chaos". While presented in books such and "Dance of the Wu Li Masters", I like Margaret Wheatley's "Leadership and the New Science" as it directly connects these two ideas to leadership theory. Wheatley defines chaos "as the absence of patterns". She defines strange attractors as things that create patterns in chaos.

All of this led up to a main point I made: organizations consistently present as chaos; especially in the tabula rosa minds of new employees. People mistakenly presume organizations are growing. They in fact are growing and dying simultaneously (Google Adizes Corporate Lifecycle - if not already familiar with this model). The primary strange attractor for culture behavioral emanations are VALUES.

And a key point relative to SDI and PoPS - especially PoPS but one is best to get to POPS via SDI - is that those profiles help organizations get to explicit definition of core values by - beautifully - working from the individual and then supporting broader definitions of organizational core values. Such a build is a highly powerful approach as it is built from the the bottom (individual) up versus the traditional build of defining a facade or patina that is - assumedly - driven down. The downward driving can work but it takes alot of work. It is much better to take what is in place (in the individuals) and work upward or outward.

And when coupled to Appreciative Inquiry as the fundamental process - WOW! And the whole philosophy of there are no weaknesses - just overdone strengths ties in wonderfully to an AI approach.


Ed Hampton -
#2 Danie
2013-09-04 16:35
Hi Bill. Thank you for your feedback and input. I agree that the theories create a nice framework but will definitely be impacted by situational influences. And to use your language, personalities (or their mode of expression) are definitely 'not static' either.
#1 Bill Kellner
2013-09-04 13:41
Thought provoking article, integrating two independent theories in culture and motivation among various organizational segments. A further extension into situational influences could prove very interesting as well, given that organizations are not static, experiencing periods of growth/decline/stress/celebration of varying duration. Each of the subcategories of motivation, while always present at the core, will be heightened or suppressed given the current situation. Nicely done!

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