Penguins vs. Polar Bears

In the Corporate world, culture is often perceived as a set of norms and morals that  vaguely drive our behaviors and decisions.

In order to use culture as a strategic lever during a transformation tough, we need to clearly define and understand what culture is in that specific environment and how it evolves. Problem is, If leaders do not clearly communicate and support the culture they want, they are passively nurturing a culture they probably do not want. Worse, many different cultures can grow in different teams and units at the same company. Without a common shared DNA, the company quickly becomes a polarized and misaligned one. But that’s a good subject for another time 🙂

While I am not giving a solution here (that would involve drawing an overall approach to transformation strategies, and that’s a job exceeding the goal of this post) I am showing a first step and fast way to start your reasoning about your organizational culture wich consists of a self-assessment, that positions your company in a space between two opposite takes on culture. I call it the Polar Bears vs. Penguins continuum.

Penguins vs. Polar Bears

The assessment describes, using a zoomorphic metaphor, the way your company plan and responds to learning, competence and incompetence of new entrants.

So, what’s the meaning of the metaphor? Even tough Penguins and Polar Bears live in an identically extreme environment -at the opposite poles of the world- their attitude versus youngsters and the weakest members of the group can’t be more different.

Bears are notoriously caring parents that help the weak cubs nurturing them back to health whenever it’s possible. On the opposite, penguins often literally  pecks to death baby penguins that are not smart enough to quickly understand they are trespassing into adult territory. (If you don’t believe me, here’s a very unpleasant video from the BBC Young Penguin Tragically Dies | Penguin Post Office | BBC Earth )

How does that relate to work culture? Companies can react to weaker, slow-learner new members in two different ways.

  1. On one side we have bears, helping the weaker, slow-to-learn team members with specific training programs, tutorship, fail to safe environments, buddy and coaching programs. They constantly nurture and support their employees on their learning journey, with the objective of creating a learning organization.
  2. On the other side we have penguins. These companies do not support new entrants with specific programs, instead, new entrants are expected to learn by themselves how to face the company’s challenges. If they do not quickly fit in, they are not (luckily enough) pecked to death but rapidly expelled and fired.

In the past, a lot of penguin companies emerged in different sectors as high-performing organizations. However, in the more volatile, uncertain, and complex world resulted from the end of the Cold War, the digital explosion, and the Covid pandemic, a penguin-like strategy is hardly a successful one in the long term.  The motivations of the  Millennials workforce will further worsen the outcomes of a penguin-like approach.

Real companies, anyway, usually position themselves in a continuum between the two opposites. So, what about your Organization, are you Penguins or Bears?