Disrupting Corporate Culture : How Cognitive Science Alters Accepted Beliefs About Culture and Culture Change and Its Impact on Leaders and Change Agents book cover
1st Edition

Disrupting Corporate Culture
How Cognitive Science Alters Accepted Beliefs About Culture and Culture Change and Its Impact on Leaders and Change Agents

ISBN 9780367532482
Published March 1, 2022 by Productivity Press
254 Pages

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Book Description

Research in cognitive science over the last 30 years shows much of what we know about culture in the business world is based on myth, wishful thinking, outdated science, or is just plain wrong. This is why culture-shaping and change programs in organizations often amount to little more than sloganeering with minimal impact on the lived experience of employees.

This book bridges the gap between the latest research on cognitive science and culture, providing a valuable guide for change leaders, CEOs, and practitioners on how to sustainably work with and change this important resource. It answers many of the major questions that have plagued culture work, such as:

  • Why so many CEOs and management consultants preach culture change when so few culture interventions actually succeed
  • Why CEOs persist in believing "culture starts at the top" when virtually no research in anthropology supports that claim

  • Why most culture shaping approaches have no answer for how to affect culture in global companies
  • Why culture doesn’t cause us to do anything, yet we persist in believing that somehow it does
  • Why so many culture-shaping projects focus on corporate values despite the fact modern science shows why changing personal values is exceedingly difficult

What we are learning about culture from the last 30 years of cognitive science gives us the foundation for far more impactful and sustainable interventions than have been possible to date. This book explains why, showing how everyday business practices well beyond HR are key to culture change. Why? Because the brain’s synaptic plasticity can only be altered through new sustained and widespread organizational habits and routines. This groundbreaking, practical guide will show you finally how to realize the full power of culture as a transformational, empowering, and competitive resource.

Table of Contents


1. The 5 Myths of Culture

2. What’s Wrong with Corporate Culture?

3. Where Culture Comes From

4. Invisible Hands, Invisible Walls

5. Change the Practice, Change the Culture

Epilogue: The Way Forward


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David G. White, Jr., PhD, is a cognitive anthropologist who has spent his career working as a change agent and organizational development practitioner in large organizations such as Microsoft, as well as entrepreneurial start-ups. He is a co-founder and principal at Ontos Global, a boutique consulting firm that works at the intersection of leadership, organizational change, and culture.


"With his new book, "Disrupting Corporate Culture: How Cognitive Science Alters Accepted Beliefs About Culture and Culture Change and Its Impact on Leaders and Change Agents," David White has joined the short list of those truly challenging organizations to be better than they are. The more we learn about neuroscience and how it helps us understand the complexity of humankind, the more some of us have become motivated to evolve and reach new heights of knowledge, feelings, connectedness, and purpose. David’s core contention is that new science also allows us to bring the same possibilities to organizations through truly understanding this heretofore elusive thing called, "culture" to bring about real, as opposed to, skin-deep, feel good, check-the-box change. And, his warning that true, deep change will be necessary to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the clarion call all organizations should heed.

"As with all opportunities for organizations to lift their game through sustained, human-focused hard work rather than offsites and bromides, the real challenge is how many will be up for it. For most, the managerial age has allowed them to pay lip service to culture in one form or another while focusing on finance-driven KPI’s to satisfy shareholders. For those organizations that see mastering their culture as the next frontier, however, White’s book is a must-read, and offers the potential to pull ahead in the race to unleash new possibilities. Truly forward-leaning organizations should get on board quickly."

Paul Kinsinger

Thunderbird School of Global Management (emeritus)

Central Intelligence Agency


"This book will challenge the perspective of any leader who thinks culture will automatically be what they want it to be. It will remind you culture is carried every day in the practices of your organization and in the minds and actions of your people and leaders. The cognitive science explains why, and this book leverages that science to help you transform your organization in a practical and meaningful way."

Mark Aslett

Chief Executive Officer, Mercury Systems

"We inhabit a very complex and rapidly changing world which constantly asks us to innovate, adapt, but doesn’t give us the intellectual and practical tools to do so. Taking seriously what transformation entails is what David White’s groundbreaking book is about. In Disrupting Corporate Culture, White proposes an entirely new way of looking at how corporate culture is constituted. "Culture", he argues, is fundamentally what governs change, and only those who will be able to use it as a resource will be able to adapt. Using cutting edge scholarship on cognition as well as his own expertise as a leading consultant in the business world, Dr. White debunks the most pervasive myths about culture and allows us to understand the multiple layers that structure the way we see "our world," a product of our intimate (embodied) engagement with the objects we manipulate, the spaces we inhabit, and the products we create. We also understand why it is impossible to transform an environment from outside, but only by making visible and recognizing the invisible structures, the "schemas," that make us act the way we do. This book will be of great interest for leaders, managers, or anyone who is not looking for easy and quick answers, but has the curiosity and the courage to rethink how they think and act on the eve of the most challenging industrial revolution to come."


Hélène Mialet

Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies

York University


"We’re between worlds, one foot in the past, the other perched on the edge of the new: global pandemics, revolutions in AI, robotics, manufacturing, human-machine interfaces, and communications have—or are in the process of—disrupting how we make things, how we work, what (and how) we buy, the ways we talk (and listen) to one another, the skills and knowledge we need to get by, and even how we feel, desire and love. The pivot point between these two worlds is culture. Culture is at the heart of everything—it "governs" change, makes the possible thinkable, and the impossible a possibility. David White’s Disrupting Corporate Culture begins by dismantling the myths, misunderstandings, fables and fairytales defining our notions of culture, to show his readers what culture looks like through the eyes of a cognitive scientist: a "shared mental operating system" of schemas that guide, delimit, pattern and channel the ways we understand, signify, give meaning to and interact with the world. White’s questions are both big and small; he not only asks us to think about revolutionary transformations in the global economy, but about the day-to-day activities that define organizational cultures locally: how to budget, to allocate resources, to plan, and to define goals. He thus challenges his readers to observe culture in action, on the ground, and in the wild. Culture as it is lived and made, he tells us, is not a uniform and static resource that can be changed by executive fiat, nor is it a reflection of what a company truly cares about, or the stage upon which the well-being of its employees is performed. Rather, White’s Disrupting Corporate Culture disrupts, reveals, and challenges business leaders to move beyond the hackneyed advice and outmoded clichés of organizational theorist and business gurus, to look instead to the dispositions, the logics, the habits and the rituals that structure how organizations actually do the work that they do."


Michael Wintroub

Professor, Department of Rhetoric

University of California, Berkeley