Meaning eats strategy for breakfast and strategy for lunch

Published on Nov 16, 2022

by Dr. Duck

You’ve probably heard of the phrase ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ coined by the management consultant, Peter Drucker. It confused me at first because I’m more of a bacon and eggs type of person and never considered devouring my strategic documents. But there I go again, taking the advice literally when Drucker clearly meant to use a metaphor.

Metaphors eat literals for breakfast. Yeah! I got the hang of it now!

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is one of those phrases that most people working in the office would have heard from time-to-time. Or you may have seen it on a social media post or just read it here for the first time.

I remember when I first heard the quote. I must have been studying psychology at the time and I was thinking ‘yeah, too right it does! The psychology of people is everything!’. Then I moved on with my day, smugly knowing that I was working in a field that offered more than all the strategic masterminds out there. Culture was the key.

It’s hard to dispute. If you have an awesome strategy but a poor culture, then that strategy can’t be executed. You can work out to how sell better, develop better products, service the clients better—better, better, better. But if your team is fractured, annoyed, uncommitted, and generally hating the work, you’ve got no hope.

It reminds me of that episode of the British comedy, The Office. David Brent, the manager of a paper selling company, announces good news and the bad news to his staff.

The bad news was that many people were about to be made redundant. The good news was that he was being promoted! As one of his culturally neutered employees exclaimed: ‘that’s not bad news and good news. It’s bad news and irrelevant news’.

Brent had dropped the equivalent of an atomic bomb (a culture bomb?) on the workplace culture and the radioactive (culturactive?) fallout would be lasting…enjoying the metaphors?

Brent thought his ‘good news’ would bolster morale.

I had a similar experience working in a casual retail job. On one particular day, managers surprised staff, jumping up and down with party blowers. They were screeching in the faces of exhausted employees at the end of a long, busy Saturday shift. We had reached record profits and were generously rewarded with a mint for our efforts. Sounds like a plot for a new Office episode…

‘The good news is we made millions of dollars. But here’s the really good news. We are rewarding you with a breath mint and loud noises!’ Woo!

It was one of the most tone-deaf engagement strategies I’ve seen in my working career and possibly an example of cultural suicide (otherwise known as ‘cultuicide’).

There was also the time they showed us the notorious fish monger video. If you’ve seen this video, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t, you aren’t missing too much. There’s a video that does the rounds at staff events to boost morale, showing the positive work culture amongst humble fish mongers.

The rather patronising message is that even a fish monger can be motivated in the right culture so you should be too. Just watch the video and get inspired.

I wonder if they show the fish mongers the video with the party blowers to get them pumped when morale drops amongst the flake and flathead.

Of course, there’s no need to be too cynical. Leaders often invest in initiatives like this because they are trying to do something.

If the party blowers and fish monger videos are the wrong approach, what would the opposite be? Perhaps it’s to cherish, promote, support and reward the values and behaviours that you want to see as part of a culture.

A leader could set an inspiring vision for the culture. They could prioritise efforts to enhance the culture and build relationships. They could encourage their development, challenge and mentor them and provide continuous feedback. And this might even pay off for everyone as the end result equals better work outcomes and happier customers.

Wait just a minute. This is sounding awfully like a strategy!

Could it be that strategy is still at the heart of all these things? Could it be that strategy prepares culture for breakfast and the employees devour said breakfast? Not as catchy as Drucker who I hear really enjoys his two WeetBix for breakfast every day. What a hypocrite!

Perhaps culture is really a trojan horse for a more delicate and intricate employee engagement strategy?

But whilst I’m deep diving into yet another metaphor, why not throw in another contender or perhaps a cat amongst the pigeons and turn this blog into a free for all of cliches?

Workplace culture is no doubt important and so is a workplace strategy, but these things are meaningless if they have no meaning (literally).

Individuals feel motivated and satisfied, indeed also more collaborative and supportive, when they find their work meaningful. Meaning is derived from pursuing activities that align with your values and interests. Meaning is experienced when we make progress towards these things. It is also there when these goals are clear and achievable.

Meaningful work is how you create a positive culture in the first place. Can you imagine the culture of a workplace that nails this or the power of a strategy that aligns everyone towards one central, meaningful and inspiring goal?

So, how about a new quote. We had the one from Drucker. How about one from Dr Ducker?

Meaning eats strategy for breakfast and strategy for lunch* – Ducker

*as a side note, I am aware that investing in a meaningful culture is also a strategy but in the interests of time, let’s just wrap up this blog.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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