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Building Culture from the Middle Out

Building Culture from the Middle Out

by Starling Insights

Starling Insights Editorial Board

Mar 29, 2024


In an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review last month, Spencer Harrison (Insead) and Kristie Rogers (Marquette) explain how organizations can build culture from the "middle out," emphasizing the importance of middle managers for "enriching" corporate culture.

People tend to think of culture as something that is driven by organizational leaders as the ‘tone-from-the-top.’ As we have argued frequently, this is a very one-dimensional view of culture. Yet possibly due to that perception, few middle managers feel empowered to actively engage in building the organization's culture. "Middle managers often assume that the best approach for ensuring a strong workplace culture is frequent messaging from top leaders promoting the mission, purpose, vision, ethos, and values of the organization," Harrison and Rogers write.

Rather than simply endorsing the cultural norms set by those at the top of the org chart, middle managers can serve as "culture enrichers" when they recognize the difference between "big-C" and "small-c" culture. "Big-C culture refers to the company's official set of stated values, while small-c culture describes the qualitative experience of day-to-day patterns of interaction," they explain. “Although leaders and employees may frequently reference the big-C culture, most of their contact with culture occurs at the small-c level.”

This "small-c" culture is one of the elements of the informal structure of an organization. As a structure, it is as impactful as formal structures like lines of reporting and financial controls but is harder to measure. Even so, in their study of a large Fortune 100 company, Harrison and Rogers found that the most effective middle managers were those who were attentive to both these levels of culture. These managers actively worked to connect the larger values of their organization to the lived-reality of those in their sphere of influence.

"Small-c cultures... are less defined by organizational boundaries and more defined by the relational behaviors that individuals build and sustain," they write. "It is in these closer relationships that managers connect the big-C to small-c and make culture come alive."

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