by Steve Adubato, PhD

Much of what happens in professional life is the product of "culture"--organizational culture to be more specific. These are the unwritten mores and values of an organization. You won't find any of these rules in writing. You won't find them in an organizational chart or the standard operating procedures manual. Yet, organizational culture is very real. It drives not only our successes, but our failures as well.

Consider the case of NASA, an organization I have conducted leadership training for in the past. NASA is well respected and has accomplished great things over the years. However, NASA clearly has problems with its "culture." These were the findings of a much awaited investigative report into the causes behind the recent Columbia disaster. Beyond the technical, mechanical and space related problems with the Columbia, much of the tragedy centered on NASA's culture, which has gone unexamined for too long. These are some of the same cultural issues that were raised after the Challenger disaster in 1986, but largely ignored.

It is important to note that NASA's culture problems are not unique to them. These are problems inherent in countless public and private sector entities. We can learn from NASA's experience, however, when it comes to changing organizational culture, it is often easier said than done. Consider some of the more significant culture-related issues at NASA that may have contributed to the Columbia disaster.

  • In many ways, the NASA culture discouraged scientists, managers and others in the organization who were concerned about safety issues from communicating those concerns in public. According to the final report on the Columbia accident, meetings at NASA were tightly controlled by those in charge and information largely flowed in one direction-downward from the top. The report also found that numerous employees at NASA had written e-mails expressing safety concerns but never sent them. When interviewed, these NASA employees said they were afraid of being ridiculed.
  • According to Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, the Columbia accident was a product of a "lack of communication" and an "atmosphere of arrogance." This wasn't only Senator Nelson's opinion. The report produced from the Columbia investigation found that many top-level managers at NASA were so concerned about the organization's public reputation that there was an atmosphere created whereby any negative feedback was stifled for fear of hurting the organization's public reputation.
  • The NASA culture also apparently defined loyalty as going along with the status quo. This is ironic because under different leadership a healthier view of loyalty to NASA might have encouraged employees to raise concerns because of a deep commitment to the organization and a desire to see it be the best it could be.
  • It also seems the NASA organizational culture has been quite insular. Concerns expressed by those outside the organization were often ignored. There may have been a sense within the organization that only those at NASA could understand the challenges and pressures facing this highly publicized federal agency.
  • My objective is not to pile on NASA at this critical point in its history. That would be too easy. But rather, NASA's problems present a unique opportunity for us to understand how organizational culture, even in an organization with top-notch professionals, can go awry. The message here is for all leaders, managers and others to pay attention to the culture and not take it for granted. There is no perfect organizational culture. No prototype where one size fits all. However, when an organization discourages open, candid and free flowing information and communication, bad things are bound to happen. From every indication, that was a lot of the problem at NASA.

What is your organizational culture like and how could it be better? Write to me.