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Lead Your Team Strategy

When Developing Corporate Culture, Think Music

When Developing Corporate Culture, Think Music
When developing corporate culture, look to music for a plan, researchers say. / Credit: Music notes image via Shutterstock

If you want your business to be successful, you need to develop a culture in which employees can thrive, a new study finds.

Therefore, when developing an organizational culture, businesses should look to music as an example, according to new research from Iowa State University (ISU).

In the study, the researchers compared the structure of an organization to the structure of music. David King, one of the co-authors of the study and an associate professor at Iowa State University's College of Business, said that, much like music, each organization has a culture defined by its rhythm and harmony: The melody sets the theme of a composition, similar to the routines developed over time that create value in an organization.

It's critical for businesses to create a successful culture, he said, because that culture is what makes it attractive for people to come to work. It also acts as a safety mechanism by establishing which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not, and in turn, helps to avoid problems, King said.

"The culture must be managed, and that is something most managers aren't taught to think about," he said. "People at the very top must set an example and demonstrate that culture."

In their comparison to music, King and co-author Samuel DeMarie, an ISU associate professor of management, noted how important it is for both music and organizations to find balance. They said the different instruments or units working individually may develop their own subculture but still need to function as a team to make music.

And while everyone is working toward a common goal, each employee at a business can't play the same instrument, the researchers noted. It's that diversity, DeMarie said, that helps prevent a culture of "groupthink" similar to what happened to Sears — for years, Sears was highly successful and, thanks in large part, to its catalog business, became the largest retailer in the world.

"Unfortunately, Sears built an organization of like-minded people who understood the catalog business but were not open to new ideas," DeMarie said. "As technology evolved, Sears stuck to their tried-and-true formula for success, mailing out a large, high-quality and very expensive catalog."

Eventually, Sears "could no longer compete and has continued on a downward spiral for decades," DeMarie said.

That's why it's OK for different subcultures to exist within an organization, King said, adding that in business, there are people who need to take risks and employees who must adhere to a more rigid environment, much like the military.

"For example, you want your special forces to take risks, and there's a specific subculture for that group," said King, a retired Air Force officer. "However, you don't want employees who are handling money or nuclear-weapon certification to get creative."

King said the same is true for organizations. "You want people in an R&D lab to take more risks and be innovative," he said. "However, in finance and accounting, it's more regimented, and you don't want people to get creative."

In their paper, the researchers argued that culture needs to be something that an organization takes into consideration when promoting employees and that by focusing on company values, business can help weed out workers who may be potential problems.

Managers often promote people who have a good performance record, even though their values don't match those of the rest of the organization, King said. One bad apple, he said, can influence other employees and create a toxic environment, which can eventually escalate to a point where it's detrimental to a company.

Instead, company leaders should promote people who display a company's values and set an example for others, King said.

"An organization's culture is not something that's in our conscious thought," King said. "That's why managers, who are responsible for creating this experience, have to start thinking about it more consciously to manage it and not leave it to chance."

The research was published recently in the Graziadio Business Review.

Originally published on Business News Daily

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.