What Makes You Cry? Why the Cultural Identity of an Organization Matters

April 26, 2010 / General /

By Ryan Quinn

A few weeks ago, I got an email from one of the delightful MBA students we have at Darden, where I teach: David Shepro. Based on an idea from an internet video phenomenon in which a guy named Matt goes to sites around the world and dances with people, “Shep,” as I have occasionally heard him called, decided to contact the Darden faculty and staff and ask if he could come to their offices to dance with them. And he captured it on video.

What about an Organization Makes You Cry?

When I received and participated in the video, I thought it was a fun idea, but I did not think much about it beyond that. Then, this morning, I received an email from David with a link to the video and a sampling of the comments on the video so far. I was struck–almost overwhelmed–by the level of positive emotion they expressed. A couple of comments in particular stood out to me:

  • “your video was an absolute masterpiece. As a soon-to-be MBAe graduate I literally laughed and cried at the same time.”
  • “I’ve watched this like 16 times … what a great way to remember the last 2? years at Darden. Talk about Darden’s “Open Door” Policy :)”

These two comments generate a train of thought in me that is relevant to those who want to lead, and not just manage. When I read the first comment, I was reminded of a comment David Whetten–a scholar who studies organizational identity–made once (I’ll have to paraphrase it, so if it’s not exactly right and you read this, Dave, please forgive me). He said, “If people cry as they talk about their organization, you know they are really talking about the identity of the organization.” Darden may not be a perfect institution–it has its warts–but I also think this student is right. In this video, you see some of what makes Darden unique as an organization. You begin to tap somewhat into Darden’s identity.

The second comment is indicative of this as well. In the second comment, you see another student connect this video–a cultural artifact–with other cultural artifacts (“the open door policy”), which also seem to tap into the central, enduring, and distinctive [1] features of Darden. When the central, enduring, and distinctive features are inspirational, generative, authentic, and adaptive [2], they draw people in, commit them to the organization, make them want to be a part of it, and make them want to contribute [3].

Bread and Salt

So what does all this talk about the cultural identity of an organization have to do with leadership? Consider an example. When Gandhi returned from South Africa to India, people tried to recruit him to help lead their political causes. Gandhi refused. Instead he elected to walk through the villages of India, spending time with the people.

Months later, somewhat forgotten in the political currents of the day, Gandhi attended a political rally, well depicted in the 1982 movie named for him. At this rally, various formal leaders spoke, railing against British rule. When Gandhi’s turn to speak came, he began speaking in quiet tones, and many ignored him and even talked over him. Gradually, though, a hush fell on the room, as more and more began to listen. Clearly the man was saying something important.

Gandhi’s message was simple, and somewhat shocking to the politicians of the day. He said, in effect, that the people of India did not care about British rule. If the British despots left, they were likely to be replaced by Indian despots anyway. What the people cared about was bread and salt. The politicians listened. The people listened. People followed Gandhi and Gandhi became a leader because he tapped into the cultural identity of the nation and created meaning [4] for the people. Eventually, a nation changed because of Gandhi’s ability to make meaning for them in a way that no one else could. [5]

What about Modern Organizations?

Darden is a school. And Gandhi was leading a nation. Is this relevant for modern organizations? What about for publicly-sold, profit-maximizing firms? Aren’t these organizations all about the money?

A few months ago I was teaching a group of executives from a Fortune 500, publicly traded, government contractor. As we discussed the difficulty that they had collaborating across the silos in their company, this issue came up. Many of the executives in the room thought that the only way they could get people to collaborate across silos was by changing the incentives or the organization, and particularly the financial ones. It was all about the money. As we talked about this more, though, we began to discover that during the company’s ideal moments–the highlights in which collaboration across silos and extraordinary performance had been achieved, the motivation was not financial. In these cases, the motivation came from a love of applying scientific knowledge to solving difficult or even intractable problems that made a meaningful difference in the world.  When one of the executives made that observation, the room got silent and the arguing stopped. For a moment, we touched the cultural identity of the organization and an opportunity for leadership emerged.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a group of executives from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Once again, the attention to financial incentives emerged. (As an aside, let me state that I do believe that financial incentives matter, and sometimes matter in a big way. I just think we often undermine ourselves when financial incentives are our first or only consideration. As I have written elsewhere [a] [b], culture has a way of undermining formal approaches to motivating behavior like financial incentives, often leaving managers bewildered as a result.)

As the discussion about financial incentives started to cover the usual terrain, I asked a different question: “How do your companies add value to society?” The executives struggled with this question. One of them said, “Well…only so-and-so’s company does socially responsible practices.”

“No,” I said, “I am not talking about socially responsible practices–especially if they are just add-ons to the real business. Socially responsible business practices may be good things, but I want to know how the core, central, activities of your company create value for society.”

After this question, and with some thought, one of the executives began to talk about how his business–a bank–provides security for people’s financial savings and opportunities to develop the wealth that will create new opportunities for those people. Other executives began to respond with similar thoughts about their own companies.

“This is great,” I said. “Now what difference would it make if, in your own leadership efforts, you were to check your decisions, your conversations, and your actions again and again against the value that your business can and does create?” That question then opened up a conversation about the creation of meaning and the opportunities and responsibilities that creates for leaders.


At Darden, we are currently undergoing changes that are among our most significant since the school was founded. I am optimistic about what we can accomplish. And I will be much more optimistic if each of us takes the opportunity step up as leaders by engaging, as David Shepro did by getting Darden faculty and staff to dance, the “bread and salt” of our own organization.



[1] Albert, S., Whetten, D. A. (1985). Organizational identity. Research in Organizational Behavior, 7: 263-295.

[2] Glynn, M. A., Walsh, I. J. (2009). Commentary: Finding the Positive in Positive Organizational Identities. In L. M. Roberts & J. E. Dutton (Eds.). Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and research Foundation (pp. 341-360). New York: Routledge.

[3] E.g., Foreman, P., Whetten, D. A. (2002). Members’ identification with multiple-identity organizations. Organization Science, 13: 618-635; Grant, A. M., Dutton, J. E., Rosso, B. D. (2008). Giving commitment: Employee support programs and the prosocial sensemaking process. Academy of Management Journal, 51: 898-918.

[4] Podolny, J. M., Khurana, R., Hill-Popper, Marya (2005). Revisiting the meaning of leadership. In B. M. Staw and R. M. Kramer (Eds.) Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 26, pp. 1-36), Oxford: Elsevier.

[5] See Quinn, R. E. (1996). Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass (chapter 21, esp. pp. 199-200) for more analysis of this story from Gandhi’s life.