Culture can drive a company forward or be the cause for its demise. Bellevue’s Excellent Culture consulting company is trying to eradicate myths about culture and help corporations accelerate success.


When Steve Gandara hears companies tout their exceptional culture, his response is always the same: “Show me the data.”

As co-founder and managing director of Excellent Cultures in Bellevue, Gandara has built a career in what he calls the “corporate transformation business,” working with companies nationwide to root out how employees feel about their workplaces. Until recently, the term “corporate culture” often induced eye rolls from executives. Gandara said even today, many of his clients come to Excellent Cultures not because they think they have a culture problem, but because sales are down, or retention is low. What many don’t realize, he said, is that business success is directly linked to culture.

Though the notion of having a positive corporate culture has caught on, Gandara said, few actually achieve it, because 90 percent of leaders’ missteps are unconscious ones, and 72 percent of managers lead in a way that creates defensive behavior. It starts with how a manager’s aura radiates.

“I’ve worked with leaders who are big, physical men, and just their physical appearance is intimidating,” he said. “Leaders like that have to really work overtime to make sure they act in a manner that’s humbling, caring, and responsive.”

Communication is another major layer, and not just verbal, he said. Words are only 10 percent effective; the rest is conveyed through body language, which is why email and texting are so ineffective.

Gandara has spent years trying to correct people’s idea of what good company culture actually looks like. As he likes to put it, it’s not singing “Kumbaya,” holding hands, or hugging each other. It’s not casual Fridays, office get-togethers, ping pong tables, or having a company dog. Culture is the underbelly of the workplace iceberg: the unwritten codes — corporate politics, perceptions, employees’ past experiences and thoughts that drive them to act the way they do at work, for better or worse.

Most leaders think they have a good culture if they have a mission statement, vision, and values, but that’s just the tip of that iceberg and often has no bearing on the actual company culture.

“Until you know what those basic mindsets are that are going on below the surface, it’s hard to know what’s really going on,” he said. “And most leaders believe they have a really good culture, and they’re totally wrong.”

He added: “What sunk the Titanic was not the iceberg. It was the culture. It was the belief that the captain and the crew had: ‘We’re bulletproof. We’re the fastest, strongest vessel in the world.’ They thought they had the greatest technology and that nothing could touch them. It’s that culture of arrogance that caused them to get too close to the iceberg and caused all those people to die.”

Researcher Robert Cooke, CEO and director of Chicago-based Human Synergistics International, was among the early research pioneers of corporate culture. He has conducted decades of worldwide studies based on survey data. When he created the first iteration of the Organizational Culture Inventory — a culture assessment for measuring organizational cultural norms — in the 1980s, people were skeptical. Do organizations really have a culture, and does it matter what the culture is like? Most didn’t think it had any impact on business performance, particularly financial outcomes.

Cooke’s research breaks culture down into three general styles — constructive, passive/defensive, and aggressive/defensive — each of which has four or more subcategories of behavior. His early research with organizations was unexpected, which led him to dial in on the culture within organizations

He initially anticipated employees who fit into the aggressive category would be lower in company ranks, because they tended to be less effective as managers and less interested in self-development. But Cooke found they were nevertheless rewarded through pay raises and promotions, in many organizations.

Corporate culture CEO idea illustration

“As I progressed with it, it struck me that what I was trying to measure was much bigger and more important,” Cooke said. “I’d had a professor, Edward T. Hall, when I was in college who specialized in the area of culture — societal culture. (I realized) that organizations have cultures just like societies and countries have cultures. (Some companies) are rewarding behavior that might not be effective over the long-term. That’s what was making it so difficult for managers to develop themselves to lead more constructively.”

Remarkably, Cooke’s studies revealed that the vast majority
of people globally want organizations with the same constructive culture qualities: achievement, self-actualizing, humanistic-encouraging, and affiliative. Excellent Cultures used Cooke’s research to develop its own culture survey, which kicks out a data-driven score in each of the three culture styles. Before completing the survey, Excellent Cultures asks all its clients to determine what kind of culture they want to have, and then measures the actual workplace temperature using the survey.

“It’s like great culture is woven into human DNA,” Gandara said. “When you ask what they want, everyone knows what heaven at work looks like. They just don’t know how to get there. But it’s amazing because the vast majority all want the same thing: They want to set and achieve goals on a regular basis, they want to be all that they can be, they want to care and appreciate each other as human beings, and be part of a unified team. How simple is that?”

According to Cooke’s research, the constructive style is directly correlated with operating a successful business. Gandara said companies want to score as high as possible in this area. Those that move toward a constructive culture have largely increased their profits as a result.

Ideally, organizations also want to have a few characteristics that fall under the aggressive/defensive style. A little competition and opposition can spark healthy debate and drive employees to work as a team. Too much of it, though, can lead to micromanagement and a power-hungry staff fighting for control.

The passive and inactive category is the least desirable. It means employees are dependent on managers to give them instructions, measure their success based on their likeability, and avoid workplace problems.

Brad Root, president of GM Nameplate, a manufacturing and engineering company in Seattle, said he was reluctant to meet with Gandara about GM Nameplate’s culture for several years. Like many others, he viewed culture as feel-good hand-holding that had little bearing on driving the business forward.

Corporate culture CEO idea illustration

“I didn’t put importance in culture beyond what we were doing,” he said. “I always thought our company had a very nice culture. I thought we had a good, positive culture, a family-run company, trying to have a good, strong family feel to it. We were doing fine in business. It was hard for me to think about bringing someone in who would help us work on our culture. How would that help our business?”

After attending one of Gandara’s seminars, however, Root left with a completely different outlook — the biggest takeaway being elevating your comfort zone to improve yourself and your business. Whatever level you were operating at before won’t be good enough anymore. He shared the seminar with company leadership and, right away, the departments nixed their meager goals and set bigger ones.

GM Nameplate’s survey revealed it was a little too strong in the approval and competitive categories, meaning employees were waiting around for management to approve their actions, and, instead of working as a team, they were competing with each other.

Before re-evaluating GM Nameplate’s culture, Root said there was one department that was “painful” to work with because it was resistant to change and struggling for control. After addressing it with the department manager, Root said, the group is performing much better.

The experience radicalized how the branch conducts its culture. By getting every employee aligned with the same goal and working as a team, Root said his division went from making $44 million a year to $82 million at its highest. The goal is to eventually reach $100 million.

Gandara said culture is difficult to correct unless leaders have a strong handle on what people are thinking, which is why it’s difficult for mangers to self-assess the workplace culture.

“Imagine what it would be like if you had a pain in your body and you went to the doctor and they asked you, ‘How do you feel?’ questions, but couldn’t tell you what to do to fix it,” he said. “Unless you have an MRI to see what to fix, then it’s hard. You can have all kinds of conversations, but you may not know how they really feel.”

Cooke’s focus has been on, at minimum, giving organizations the language to talk about culture and identify what they can work on. He’s witnessed some countries as a whole make radical efforts to improve the workplace. In the United States, with so many organizations, he sees progress on an individual level and continues to work to educate executives about culture change.

“It’s so interesting to us (at Human Synergistics) that constructive cultures are important across industries, not just countries,” Cooke said. “In some industries, people feel that constructive norms are a little too soft, but the fact is that constructive styles are relevant to organizations in every industry. It helps people work more effectively, solve problems together, and enables organizations to meet goals and objectives.”


The Culture Wheel

Constructive Styles

Employees approach projects in a way that emphasizes and drives forward a company’s overall achievement. Ideally, companies will score as high as possible in this area. It’s the most desirable and effective culture across all industries and companies.

Passive/Defensive Styles

Employees act in a self-preserving manner, meaning they tend to avoid problems, seek positive remarks from superiors at the expense of doing their job well, and are dependent on instructions. Companies need to score as low in this category as possible.


Employees act defensively and aggressively to protect their status and security, which often translates into a fiercely competitive nature between employees; micromanagement; controlling, power-hungry behavior; and difficulty making unified decisions. Companies want a small amount of these characteristics to spark healthy debate and competition.

The Organizational Culture Inventory ® Circumplex, developed by Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., is Copyright © 1986, 2018 by Human Synergistics International. All Rights Reserved.