A Critique of HBR’s Article: “You Can’t Fix Culture”

C’MON HBR—QUIT THIS NONSENSEThe Harvard Business Review magazine was on my desk, still in plastic:


I’ve been noting the disingenuous headlines that HBR plasters on its covers and its articles for years. That contrarian titling, or bait-and-switch, is the stuff of blogs, publications and writers worried their content won’t draw readers. But my HBR? Aren’t the readers and authors deserving of more respectful treatment?  My prediction: the article will describe how effective leaders and successful businesses include as part of “focusing on the business” all sorts of things related to, yes, creating an excellent culture.

Experience tells me that the headline on the HBR cover is yet another silly semantic sleight-of-hand. You can’t fix culture? Oh contraire, yes you can.

Off with the plastic to page 96:

The actual title of the article is CULTURE IS NOT THE CULPRIT.  This is even more irksome—declaring as wrong something that no one asserted in the first place. Who would accuse a “culture” of being a culprit? Misguided, incompetent, or toxic CEOs and weak, ill-informed boards can be culprits—but an organizational culture? No.

I grit my teeth and dive in.  After a few paragraphs my prediction is confirmed: “But in every case, when the leaders used tools such as decision rights, performance measurement, and reward systems to address their particular business challenges, organizational culture evolved in interesting ways as a result, reinforcing the new direction.”

It goes on—clarity, decentralized decision-making, clear sense of purpose, increasing trust on the leadership team, meeting employees’ needs for resources, happier workers, compensating people well….

For crying out loud. You can’t fix culture? Oh contraire, yes you can—read this article! How about this title: CEOs WHO GET CULTURE—GET IT DONE.

I don’t dis the quality of HBR articles—because there’s great information in most of them. I certainly don’t dis the authors—because this “everything you know is wrong” approach to packaging content is the best way to get published in HBR.

I do challenge the venerable Harvard Business Review to do their part to increase authentic conversations and decrease the fodder for cynicism.


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Patty Fahy

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