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Avoiding Culture as a Weapon: Strength Through Unity, Not Division

Culture in the workplace is a complex topic that organizations must navigate thoughtfully. While cultural bonds can unite employees and propel an organization forward, culture can also be exploited and weaponized to divide and manipulate.

Today we will explore how organizational leaders can foster cultures of inclusion that bring out the best in everyone, rather than sowing discord for political gain.

Defining Culture and Its Role in Organizations

Before addressing culture's potential as a manipulative tool, it is important to understand what workplace culture encompasses. Organizational culture refers to the shared attitudes, experiences, standards and beliefs that develop within an organization and guide members' behaviors without direct orders (Schein, 2017). It arises from both formal and informal interactions as employees pursue common goals. If cultivated purposefully, culture can increase job satisfaction, productivity and innovation by giving employees a sense of identity, community and purpose (Parjanadze, 2019).

However, culture is also inherently political due to competing priorities and scarce resources within organizations (Martin, 2002). If left unchecked, certain groups may exploit cultural dynamics to their advantage through exclusionary behaviors and selective sharing of information. This can undermine unity, trust and cooperation among diverse stakeholders (Elsbach & Bhattacharya, 2001). While no culture is perfectly harmonious, leaders must recognize culture's potential for coercion and address it proactively.

Culture as a Tool for Manipulation and Division

So how exactly can culture become weaponized in the workplace? There are a few distinct yet interrelated ways this can occur if left unguided:

  • Us vs. Them Rhetoric - By painting certain employees or departments as outsiders threatening the greater cultural in-group, power-seekers sow division and dependence on their leadership (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). This may involve selectively sharing resources, blame or praise.

  • Selective Information Sharing - Withholding or distorting information from certain individuals or silos allows rumors and distrust to spread while consolidating power among trusted confidants (Vaara, 2003).

  • Appeals to Tribal Identity - Explicitly or implicitly encouraging cultural bonds based on attributes like gender, tenure or past affiliations rather than shared purpose can fragment the workforce (Ely & Thomas, 2001).

  • Lack of Diverse Perspectives - Homogenous cultures lacking diverse lived experiences are more vulnerable to extremes and unchecked groupthink that serve a few rather than the whole (Rockstuhl et al., 2011).

Any rhetoric, behaviors or dynamics that elevate some while marginalizing others for political gain constitute culture being exploited as a manipulative weapon. The following section outlines proactive steps leaders can take.

Proactively Cultivating an Inclusive Culture

To avoid culture being distorted and co-opted, leaders must shape dynamics intentionally from the start with an inclusive vision shared by all. Here are several evidence-based techniques to build unity rather than division:

  • Communicate Shared Values - Foster pride in values like integrity, diversity and community that unite all stakeholders rather than temporary affiliations that divide (Albert et al., 2000).

  • Promote Psychological Safety - Create an environment where employees feel comfortable contributing perspectives without fear of retribution, allowing for constructive debate of ideas rather than people (Edmondson, 1999).

  • Lead With Vision, Not Politics - Inspire unity through a compelling future state that motivates cooperation rather than jockeying for power or credit (Kotter, 2012).

  • Cultivate Informal Bonds - Encourage regular social interaction and relationship-building across traditional boundaries to break down "us vs. them" barriers (Hambrick, 1994).

  • Make Diversity a Priority - Intentionally recruit and develop leaders representing diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives for balanced, informed leadership (Cox, 1994).

  • Address Tensions Openly - Surface conflicts constructively to finding solutions upholding shared values rather than burying problems that fester into "cultural" gripes (Schweiger et al., 1986).

Practical Application

The following examples illustrate applying these techniques across different industries and organization types.

Inclusive Culture at Tech Giant Apple

Apple is known for its strong corporate culture yet also faced accusations of secrecy and insularity that risked empowering internal politicking (Streitfeld, 2018). However, after becoming CEO in 2011, Tim Cook made inclusivity a bedrock priority. He intentionally diversified leadership, emphasized mentorship across divisions, and promoted employees speaking up about new ideas - even if unpopular - as vital for sustained innovation (Isaac, 2017).

Cook also implemented annual company-wide meetings where all could contribute feedback and debate major initiatives together openly. This fostered shared ownership while surfacing critical perspectives earlier than siloed debates allowed. Apple's ever-growing success demonstrates an inclusive culture where talents of all kinds feel valued is key for even the most "tribal" companies.

Overcoming Division at Non-Profit Organization

A Midwestern non-profit serving disadvantaged youth faced deep divides threatening its mission. Powerful board members used exclusionary rhetoric implying other divisions were less committed, sowing mistrust. The new CEO addressed this directly, hosting open conversations where all stakeholders shared experiences and concerns.

She then worked with the full board to draft a new strategic plan emphasizing the shared value of opportunity for all youth - not affiliations. Regular cross-divisional volunteer projects and social events were also instituted to break interpersonal barriers. Within a year, focused vision and relationship-building transformed an divided culture into one energized by united purpose. The non-profit now better serves its community as a result.


Organizational culture profoundly influences outcomes and employee experiences for better or worse. While cultural identity can be a strength when unified around shared values and goals, it is also inherently vulnerable to exploitation that undermines diversity, trust and cooperation. Through proactive guidance, leaders can shape inclusive workplace cultures where all people feel respected, heard and committed to the greater good - rather than environments ruled by fear, favoritism or division. With care and foresight, leaders can avoid culture deteriorating into a political weapon and instead allow it to empower people of all backgrounds to realize their potential. A culture of inclusion is the surest path to sustained strength, innovation and impact for any organization.


  • Albert, S., Ashforth, B. E., & Dutton, J. E. (2000). Organizational identity and identification: Charting new waters and building new bridges. Academy of management review, 25(1), 13-17.

  • Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of management review, 14(1), 20-39.

  • Cox, T. (1994). Cultural diversity in organizations: Theory, research and practice. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  • Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

  • Elsbach, K. D., & Bhattacharya, C. B. (2001). Defining who you are by what you're not: Organizational disidentification and the National Rifle Association. Organization Science, 12(4), 393-413.

  • Ely, R. J., & Thomas, D. A. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative science quarterly, 46(2), 229-273.

  • Hambrick, D. C. (1994). Top management groups: A conceptual integration and reconsideration of the" team" label. Research in organizational behavior, 16, 171-214.

  • Isaac, M. (2017, June 27). Inside Apple’s inclusion push to hire more women and minorities for leadership roles. The New York Times.

  • Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Press.

  • Martin, J. (2002). Organizational culture: Mapping the terrain. Sage.

  • Parjanadze, N. (2019). Organizational culture: Definitions, types and impact on performance. International Journal of Business & Economic Sciences Applied Research (IJBESAR), 12(1), 7-15.

  • Rockstuhl, T., Seiler, S., Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Annen, H. (2011). Beyond general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ): The role of cultural intelligence (CQ) on cross‐border leadership effectiveness in a globalized world. Journal of Social Issues, 67(4), 825-840.

  • Schein, E. H. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

  • Schweiger, D. M., Sandberg, W. R., & Ragan, J. W. (1986). Group approaches for improving strategic decision making: A comparative analysis of dialectical inquiry, devil's advocacy, and consensus. Academy of Management Journal, 29(1), 51-71.

  • Streitfeld, D. (2018, October 12). Inside Apple, Culture of Secrecy is Taking its Toll. The New York Times.

  • Vaara, E. (2003). Post-acquisition integration as sensemaking: Glimpses of ambiguity, confusion, hypocrisy, and politicization. Journal of Management Studies, 40(4), 859-894.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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