The Dangers of a Misalignment Between Culture and Strategy

Published: Nov 07, 2017
Modified: May 20, 2020


From Apple to Zappos, every successful company has its own distinct corporate culture. Whether you are observing the leaders’ strategic decision making, HR’s hiring practices, or the marketing team at work, this culture permeates everything the company does.

When corporate culture does not align with the strategic goals of the company, optimal performance will be impossible to sustain. Just as a garden must be carefully tended to keep weeds from taking it over, culture must be consciously maintained to prevent it from morphing into something unintended.

The consequences of culture-strategy misalignment

If you follow business news, you may be aware that a large number of corporate snafus can be blamed on the misalignment of culture within an organization. Allowing culture and strategy to fall out of alignment can bring leaders face-to-face with far-reaching consequences. These include:

  • Lost sense of mission. When strategy and a strong culture are aligned, they create a sort of compass effect that gives employees a sense of clarity and a mission that guides their actions and decisions. When that alignment fails, many employees default to self-serving behaviors and the sense of mission is lost.
  • Disoriented employees. When employees get mixed signals from leaders preaching one set of values but rewarding a different set of behaviors, it can leave them feeling confused, jaded, and out of touch with the organization’s goals. For example, a company may focus on individual performance reviews despite verbally praising the merits of teamwork.
  • Damaged public image. When culture and strategy are aligned, day-to-day operations tend to fall into sync with a company’s brand and image. Failure to maintain alignment can make the organization appear hypocritical to those observing it—especially to customers.
  • Increased turnover. A strong culture that is well-aligned with strategy creates a sense of belonging to something greater than any individual. It inspires loyalty in all levels, from company leadership to entry-level hires. When that alignment fails, the sense of loyalty can be nearly impossible to maintain—and employees will tend to seek it elsewhere.

3 steps to realign corporate culture

The four problems above are red flags that your culture and organizational strategy may be out of alignment. If you’re experiencing them, take these three steps to start the process of culture realignment:

Examine your people. Take a hard look at the employees your organization is hiring and promoting. Are they a good fit with the organization’s strategy and purpose? (For instance, do you have a lot of “lone wolf” types in an organization that relies strongly on teamwork?) If you notice a disconnect in this area, your hiring and promotion policies and practices may be due for revision.

Examine your systems. Do your organization’s systems support or conflict with your cultural values? For instance, if trust is one of your primary values, can you truly endorse an expense system that does not permit most of your senior executives to approve large expenditures?

Examine your communications. What words are your leaders using to communicate with your people? What principles are they talking about? What milestones and events are they choosing to commemorate? Are these communication choices supporting a culture that reinforces your strategy?

We often hear companies such as Starbucks, Google, and Zappos praised for their outstanding corporate culture. There’s a reason for this. The leaders of these companies have made the commitment to fully align their culture with their strategies. With every organizational choice they make, they reinforce that commitment. By embracing that level of dedication to alignment, any organization can conquer cultural problems to achieve stellar performance.

About The Author

Principal of AlignOrg Solutions, Reed Deshler specializes in developing strategic organization designs and helping companies bring them to fruition. As an organization consultant, he works with executive teams and HR teams to define winning strategies, align their organization and business models for success, and mobilize employees and stakeholders in the desired direction. He’s guided Fortune 500 companies—including 3M, Abbott, Hertz, Chevron, Cisco, and General Mills—as well as middle-market businesses and nonprofits through change successfully and helped them solve complex organizational challenges. Deshler is co-author of Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works, a guidebook that outlines AlignOrg Solutions’ organization alignment process. He regularly writes and speaks on issues related to organization transformation and ways to implement—and create buy-in—among stakeholders for new business designs. Learn more about becoming an Alignment Leader.