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What's Culture Have To Do With It?

Culture seems to be referenced in the news often these days. We blame culture when something goes terribly wrong in an organizational system and there have been countless recent examples. Oxford's Word of the Year for 2018 is "toxic" and while it has been used in many different contexts, the top 10 words it has typically been used with fall into two categories: our global ecological environment and organizational systems [1]. We also sometimes see the culture of a highly admired company as the ‘right culture’ and seek to emulate it. My objective in this post is to provide insights that help you gain greater clarity on your culture and help you work with it as a source of strength. As I started writing, I got into culture and: strategy, mergers, change, leaders, brand, etc. I decided I'd provide an introduction and then write subsequent posts on other topics related to culture. Do we know what culture is and how we can we work with it? Culture is best viewed from the perspective of what an organization is seeking to achieve - its strategy - and what the environment within which it operates allows. Alignment of strategy, culture, and brand are key. The culture that enables one organization to be successful can be very different from what aids another.


What Culture is and How It's Created

Culture is often referred to as ‘the way we do things around here’. It is a pattern of basic assumptions, values, norms and artifacts that is shared by organization members. It is created by what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis. For example,

  • What do leaders emphasize when they teach and coach their staff?

  • How are scarce resources, rewards, and symbols of status allocated?

  • What criteria are used to recruit, promote, and fire people?

  • How do leaders react to organizational crises or critical incidents?

Culture is supported and reinforced through organization design, structure, systems, formal statements of organizational philosophy and values, rituals, stories about people and events, and design of physical space. [2]

While top leaders have significant influence on culture, so do groups. Culture is a product of social learning as groups encounter business issues. The solutions that appear to work are used repeatedly and become part of the culture. The assumptions underlying them are then no longer questioned or debated. Shared understanding is created that then aids communication and action. It creates efficiency since organizational members can coordinate their activity without always having to discuss and explicitly reach agreement. This invisible force helps people working within the organization make sense of it, signaling how work is to be done and evaluated and how employees are to relate to one another, customers, suppliers, and regulators. When there is an organizational change such as when we have, or are, a new leader and/or we are in a merger, we no longer have this shared language or perspective that eases and enables aligned action.



Understanding and Working with Culture

Culture is like the wind; we know it’s there, but we can’t see it. I think some of its power comes from it being invisible and some from it being like a tightly knit tapestry created over time by many different people. You can’t pull just one or two strings out, because you don’t like the color, without unraveling the tapestry completely. So what can you do, as a leader, to better understand and work with your culture? 1. Respect your culture and be curious. “Culture controls you more than you control culture. You want it that way because it is culture that gives meaning and predictability to your daily life.”[3] Resist the urge to change your culture. Initially, enjoy paying closer attention to it and its impact. 2. Pay attention to artifacts of culture. For example:

  • How highly respected is time i.e. Do meetings typically start and end on time?

  • What speed is valued i.e. is everything needed on short timeframes or is there a longer more deliberate tempo?

  • How is space organized and allocated? Are there offices and is the corner office still a perk?

  • What is the dress code (written or unwritten)? Are handmade suits the norm, business casual or something else?

The space and dress can reveal the level of formality and how important status is within the organization. This can flow to things less tangible such as how people communicate face to face and in emails and how they relate to one another as they work. There are many other types of artifacts that help provide signals. While becoming more aware of them is helpful, this is a superficial level of culture so use caution in making significant meaning or taking significant action from the artifacts or above the waterline level. 3. Begin to uncover the espoused values.

  • Seek to understand the origin of cultural artifacts. Ask people who have long tenure with your organization the stories behind certain artifacts that most puzzle you.

  • Consider stories of the founders. What motivated them to start the organization? What was their profession or occupation and how did that impact their view of the world?

  • Consider official statements of the organization’s espoused values and philosophy. Where did they come from? Are they consistent with the way people act and consistent with what it takes to be successful in today’s environment?

4. Begin to make the culture more visible. Characterize it in words that hold shared meaning. Ask these questions of people with whom you are trying to achieve something:

  • When you think about our culture, what 3 individual words come to mind?

  • What advice would you give a new person about what it takes to be successful here?

  • What in the culture is helping us advance our strategy (or a particular initiative)?

  • What in our culture is hindering our ability to advance the strategy (or initiative)?

5. Consider how well aligned your strategy is with your culture and how well aligned both are with your brand and your structure, systems, and processes. What behavior will your strategy require and how consistent is that with the current prevalent behaviors? 6. Stay curious. Ask questions and engage in conversations rather than being judgmental. This will enable discovery and possibilities. Again, resist the urge to change anything at this point. Just notice. 7. Be patient. Patience is a choice. Consider the long view. The ways things are done around your organization have their roots in something that worked at some point in the organization’s history.

[1]“… a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” 2018 Oxford University Press online at [2] Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 1992. [3] Edgar Schein, Ibid.


Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for more on Culture and: strategy, mergers, new leaders, change, brand... Contact us if you want to explore more about culture and/or have interest in working with a trusted partner with culture expertise.

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