Adversity Reveals the True Character of Culture

There is an old saying that “adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”

Much like character, true organizational culture and core values tend to be revealed when organizations face adversity. It can be easy to gloss over potential issues when profit margins are high and the economy is humming along. It’s often only when disruption occurs that organizations are forced to take a hard look at what’s working and what needs improvement, including making an honest and objective assessment of their culture.

The US economy is currently facing the greatest economic adversity since the Great Depression,  having lost over 22 million jobs[1] in the last few months alone.

How different organizations are dealing with this adversity is very revealing.

Airbnb recently had to lay off about 25% of its current workforce. In an open letter to his Airbnb employees, CEO Brian Chesky shared why they had to make the layoffs, the decision making process involved and the future direction of the organization. He relied heavily on the company’s core values to not only guide the painful process of laying off 1,900 people, but also in how he communicated to his remaining workers.

One of Airbnb’s core values is “be a host” which includes behaviors like “listen, communicate openly and set clear expectations” and “care for others and make them feel like they belong.”

Chesky’s letter certainly was open and demonstrated a deep concern for Airbnb’s employees – both those retained and the 1,900 who lost their jobs. The letter and approach set a strong example of modeling Airbnb’s core values for employees and customers alike. Like all companies in the travel industry, the road ahead for Airbnb will be challenging, but if the letter from their CEO is any indication, one big advantage Airbnb has is a strong culture and core values to drive them forward.

Why does having a strong culture matter?

There have been hundreds of studies addressing the importance of organizational culture. Research shows that if you get culture right, it leads to more engaged employees, lower turnover, and ultimately, better organizational performance.[2] On the other hand, negative cultures defined by such things as a lack of open and transparent communication, perceptions of unequal treatment of employees, and mistrust of management intentions can lead to employee disengagement and turnover that carries huge costs.[3]

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.

Maya Angelou

The difficulties currently facing businesses across industries create an opportunity for leaders to consider the true character of their culture and values, as well as how they may enable or detract from business performance. Here at APTMetrics, we believe that there are three steps organizations can take now to help optimize this process:


Ensure culture is aligned to current and future business priorities

During this time of rapidly changing business conditions, it is more important now than ever to determine whether cultural priorities and core values are aligned to support and enable your evolving business strategy. As leaders make changes to business priorities that will help their organizations weather the financial storm, they should also take stock of their cultural priorities and evolve them in parallel with the business. If aligned effectively, organizational culture and core values can help to accelerate the change that will be required to execute the new business strategies. Famed management consultant Peter Drucker is credited with saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but in today’s environment, the highest functioning organizations ensure that culture and strategy can sit down together like a couple of old friends and break bread at the breakfast table.


Ensure culture and core values are clearly defined in behavioral terms

Many organizations struggle to clearly define their culture and core values, leaving employees without clear guidelines on how they should work together when performing their jobs. This is especially problematic in today’s circumstances when employees are faced with dramatically different work processes and rapidly changing business conditions.  The most effective companies take time to provide  clear definitions and behavioral descriptions for their values to set expectations and guide performance rather than just a word or short descriptive phrase.


Align your talent processes to your culture

Once organizations have defined their culture and core values in behavioral terms that serve as a guide for how employees should execute newly evolving business priorities, the next step is to reinforce these behaviors in their talent processes. If you are one of the organizations fortunate enough to be hiring right now, are your selection systems designed to find candidates who are aligned with your core values (or can quickly learn and adapt to them)? Do on-boarding and training programs reinforce what the behaviors should look like on the job? Do performance management and recognition programs reward those who model these behaviors?

Do you have a tough question you are wrestling with?

Please let us know, and we may include it in future installments of this series coming to your inbox soon.

In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about how organizations are assessing Cultural Dynamics to maximize their hiring success in our current environment.

[1] Jones, C. (2020, April). One Chart Shows Coronavirus’ Stunning Job Losses. Forbes. Retrieved from

[2] McKinsey and Company, Culture: 4 keys to why it matters, 2018.

[3] SHRM Reports Toxic Workplace Cultures Cost Billions. (25, September, 2019). Retrieved from