Building Culture From the Middle Out

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Midlevel leaders are critical to fostering an organizational culture that’s healthy and vibrant.

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We have asked thousands of executives from around the world the same simple question: “Who is responsible for culture in your organization?” Hands go up and, almost to a person, the response is, “Everyone.”

We then ask a follow-up: “If everyone is responsible for culture in your organization, what do you do to manage it?”

Hands go down. Gazes divert. The most common answers are uninspiring: “Keep an open-door policy.” “Provide good performance reviews.” “Check in with employees.” While each of these actions may be helpful, not one is specific to culture. They are simply generic management habits — that is, none are practices specific to translating a company’s unique set of values into a lived experience for the people who work there.

Organizational culture is the set of shared values that guide how work gets done. There used to be a debate about whether culture predicts high performance or whether high performance affords leaders a strong and cohesive culture. Evidence now overwhelmingly supports the former.1 But for a business to harness the power of culture, it needs midlevel leaders across the organization — the managers and team leaders — to go beyond believing that they are responsible for culture to actively building it.

Our research revealed that midlevel leaders often feel they need to endorse cultural norms rather than enrich them, by which we mean supporting expressions of cultural norms and values as they arise in smaller teams. We also identified key behaviors that managers at any level of an organization can embrace to become culture builders. Specifically, we found that the most successful midlevel leaders find ways to link the “big-C” culture of their organization — its official set of values — with the “small-c” culture that plays out in the narrower and vibrant daily patterns of interaction.

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1. C.A. Hartnell, A.Y. Ou, A.J. Kinicki, et al., “A Meta-Analytic Test of Organizational Culture’s Association With Elements of an Organization’s System and its Relative Predictive Validity on Organizational Outcomes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 6 (June 2019): 832-850; C. Gartenberg, A. Prat, and G. Serafeim, “Corporate Purpose and Financial Performance,” Organization Science 30, no. 1 (January-February 2019): 1-18; and J. Pfeffer and J.F. Veiga, “Putting People First for Organizational Success,” Academy of Management Executive 13, no. 2 (May 1999): 37-48.

2. This labeling adopts the “big-C” and “small-c” distinction in societal culture between the institutional forces and features (big-C) and the subjective manifestations that come from day-to-day interactions with others (small-c). This distinction is also inspired by Heath and Sitkin’s article on big-B versus big-O considerations in research on organizations. See M.J. Bennett, “Intercultural Communication: A Current Perspective,” in “Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings,” ed. M.J. Bennett (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 1998), 1-20; and C. Heath and S.B. Sitkin, “Big-B Versus Big-O: What Is Organizational About Organizational Behavior?” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22, no. 1 (February 2001): 43-58.



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