Culture Is an Invisible Fence


Culture is critical to your organization. As a leader creating a healthy culture should be your top priority. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That last one is Peter Drucker, guru of all management gurus. If Drucker says it, it must be important.

Drucker was not wrong. Culture is important, vitally so, but if you have spent any time at all learning about organizational leadership, you are probably already sick of hearing about it. Alright already, culture matters! We get it! Unfortunately, that is usually where the useful advice on culture ends.

But what is culture in the first place, and why is it so important?

First, let's define what is not culture: Culture is not that list of high-minded values you post on your website and the conference room walls. Those values may or may not be related to your actual culture. Nor is culture the ping pong table in the break room, or the “mandatory fun” social outings that some people like and others dread. Those things can be correlated with culture, but they are not culture itself, nor are they causally related to culture.

Your real culture is invisible, but it is always present. Groups of humans, even newly-formed, ad hoc groups, silently establish a culture almost instantly. It is something we humans just do. Culture is the unwritten rule book establishing which behaviors are in-bounds and which are out-of-bounds.

Culture is an invisible fence.

If you have a dog, you probably know what that is. To install an invisible fence, you first bury a loop of wire in your yard that defines the boundary you want to establish. Your dog wears a collar that sounds a warning beep when he approaches the buried wire and delivers an electric shock when he crosses it. In the training phase, you place little white flags every few feet along the perimeter to help the dog understand where the line is drawn.

Over time, you remove the flags. Your dog knows where the boundary is, though, and they know bad things happen fast if she crosses it. At some point, you forget to charge the collar, but it doesn’t matter. Eventually, your dog doesn’t even think about crossing the invisible fence any more. It’s just not an option. We do not consciously avoid behaviors outside the invisible fence. Rather, we do not even consider them in the first place.

This is culture, unseen, buried just below the surface, but always exerting its force.

When humans are in the training phase—we call this "childhood"—we make many of the boundaries of our culture explicit. We teach them to our children.

  • Always say please and thank you.
  • Don't talk with your mouth full.
  • Don’t be late.
  • Give a firm handshake and make clear eye contact.

Other cultural rules we simply absorb.

  • When there is a wait, form an orderly line.
  • Only nerds sit in the front row in class.
  • In the United States, we stand on average 37 inches away when talking to a stranger, but only 28 inches away from someone we know.

Do you carry a tape measure to ensure you maintain the culturally acceptable personal space? Of course not. You just know. Do you know when someone stands too close? Absolutely. You can feel it, and it feels bad. Other cultures silently agree on differently sized personal bubbles, and many other norms that differ from our own. Unfamiliar cultures make us uncomfortable because we don’t know where the wires are buried.

How do we know?

How did we learn all these rules? You learned the rules because you have been rewarded for staying within your cultural boundaries and zapped for crossing them your entire life. The rewards are not belly rubs and Milk-Bones; they are affirmation and acceptance.

The corrective zaps are not electric shocks. For humans, zaps come in many forms. They can be as subtle as a shift in body language or tone of voice. A certain look or a slightly terse response delivers a clear message: You are too close to the boundary wire. 

Did you reflexively show discomfort on your face and back up slightly when your close-talking work colleague stood four inches too close? That’s a little zap. If the colleague immediately notices and backs up, you will relax. If not, you will avoid them. We shun people who consistently violate cultural norms.

Bigger transgressions result in bigger zaps. Cross a significant cultural boundary and you could be met with the terrible shame of a record-scratch, stop-the-music, everyone-staring-at-me embarrassment. In the extreme, you could face outright physical aggression.

Those zaps are so effective that often it takes only one to permanently modify a person’s behavior. Publicly shame a child, and it is possible they will avoid repeating that behavior again for the rest of their life. Culture is that powerful. 

The common characteristic of cultural zaps across the whole voltage range is that they all result in a reduction of social status, and social status really matters to humans. Being accepted by the groups that matter to you is everything, no matter how independent we think we are. For our not so distant ancestors, the worst possible punishment was exile. Exile from the group was a death sentence. Obeying the culture keeps you in good standing with the group. Obeying the culture keeps you alive.

Your Personal Invisible Fence

For leaders, we often say that the culture you create is defined by the things people will not say around you, because of you. You have your own personal invisible culture fence. Your people quickly learn where they can explore freely and what will get them zapped.

Give your direct reports a warning beep in the form of a sharp response or a displeased facial expression for telling you the truth about a project that is not going as well as you had hoped, and they will instantly understand where your boundary wire is buried. Don’t tell the boss what he doesn’t want to hear. Eventually, they won’t just hesitate to tell you; the idea of telling you will not even enter their minds.

As leaders, we must be intentional about where we bury that wire. We owe it to people to make the location of our personal fence clear. Plant some little white flags so people know. Where you place them matters. If we leave it to chance, the location of our personal fence will be unconsciously driven by all our unprocessed baggage and biases, forming an irregular and unpredictable edge that your people will steer clear of by staying inside a small, safe box—not a great formula for a high-performing team.

Likewise, if you leave the culture of your organization to chance, the fence that evolves will represent a sort of shifting and unstable truce between the most influential personalities, reinforced by unedited legends of the ill-fated souls who stepped over the wrong wire at the wrong time.

The invisible fence of culture is always there and always on. As humans, we cannot choose otherwise. What we can choose is where to bury the wire and where to plant the little white flags. Happy (and thoughtful) digging!

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