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What is Organizational Culture?

Oct 20, 2021
Team of people discussing computer presentation

What is organizational culture and why has it become a priority for executive leaders in their promotional and hiring process? 

Most of the time it can mean completely different things from one person to the next because the idea of culture is a nebulous concept. It becomes difficult to explain or describe because it’s use is generally ambiguous in organizations, much like the word love in relationships. I can tell you that I love my dog and l love my children, but what I mean is different for both, right? Well, maybe when my children were going through their teenage years the dog was more favorable.

Ambiguity means organizations tend to lack a clear definition of what is meant by organizational culture. So, by the time someone is fired for not being a cultural fit, the person doing the firing and the person being fired really have no clear explanation. Consequently, it does not help the organization, or the persons involved to flourish. And let’s not forget that it’s a very costly business to let someone go for not being a cultural fit and replacing them. 

A thriving organization is one with strongly held and widely shared values embedded in organizational culture. Though it is popular to assume Human Resource carries this responsibility, it is the executive leadership of an organization who create culture, as the members perpetuate it. New hires quickly come to understand and thrive in the culture of an organization through this intentional and perpetuating environment.

How does a thriving culture happen? 

Current members already know how management want them to respond in any given situation. Members also tend to believe this response as something good and healthy for them and the organization; and members know they will be recognized and rewarded for upholding the values of an organization. 

Picture organizational culture like adhesive holding everything together. This adhesive focuses on how things get done rather than what gets done. So, culture can be referred to as the silent code of conduct, background aura, or white noise, yet it impacts everyone in the organization, especially new hires.

Organizational culture is not a product or service, or something that an organization has to offer. Culture is what your organization is, whether it is good or bad. A flourishing organization occurs when all members recognize that culture functions as an adhesive holding things together, and as such, shapes the relationships and behavior of every member on every level. 

Where does it originate?

Though healthy organizational culture is perpetuated by its members, it originates with its executive leadership derived and exhibited from basic assumptions that lay the foundation for organizational culture. Some questions may help: 

  1. Does the executive leadership perceive people as inherently proactive or reactive, good or bad, hard working or lazy, mutable or immutable, trustable or untrusted, ethical or unethical? Whatever leaders assume about people will reflect in the way their members interact with each other and how those people are managed.

  2. Does the executive leadership define their organization and the members within it as a family, team, group, partners, an association, and so on? The language that people use to describe the environment of your organization reveals how you are defined.

  3. Does the executive leadership use metrics that effectively measure how well its members are doing, and whether they need further training to become better at what they do? A thriving culture takes care of its people.

  4. Does the leadership believe their culture is supported by the business strategy or their organizational structure? Either option leads down very different paths.

  5. Does the executive leadership encourage certain emotions in the day-to-day business of your organization? On the opposite end, which emotions are discouraged? If this is not done right, it can create fake people whose behavior and internal beliefs come into conflict.

Is it tangible or whimsical?

Organizational culture is seen, felt, and heard in multiple ways. It evokes emotion. Some ways include corporate celebrations, internal and external communication, the behavior of its members, the use of images in marketing and promoting services and products, how and when individual members are recognized and rewarded, and much more. 

Everything about the environment of an organization – the operating systems, procedures, tools, technology, policies, talent, and facilities – communicate organizational culture. In some cases, culture does not always relate to the official statements displayed on the wall or on the stationery. Organizational culture is more about what really matters to the members of an organization, how people really relate and work together, how everyone really experiences it, and how they make others feel.

Is organizational culture the same for everyone? 

Organizations are not that different from each other. Everyone organization wants to optimize their positive reputation, productivity, and revenue, right? On one hand, the dimensions of values, urgency, hierarchy, people and tasks, and subcultures are common from one organization to the other. On the other hand, within those common dimensions are unique characteristics. Think about dimensions as building blocks and characteristics as the activity within that block. 

All organizations have values. Those values are not right or wrong, but each organization emphasizes the unique characteristics of their values. Again, some questions may help: 

  1. Does your organization encourage ideas and experimentation with a degree of risk-taking

  2. To what degree is collaboration encouraged, celebrated, and rewarded?

  3. How focused are you on deadlines, achievements, and results?

  4. Does your organization pursue tolerance, fairness, respect, and acceptance of others?

  5. Is there a healthy competitive spirit?

  6. How much attention to detail is given to approaching problem solving?

All organizations have a sense of urgency whether it is intentional or not. Like values, a sense of urgency has unique dimensions to it that are unique to your own organization. More questions:  

  1. Is the degree of urgency to which decisions are made driven by choice or forced upon the organization because of the movements in the marketplace?

  2. To what degree are projects and tasks pushed through quickly with a decisive management style?

  3. To what degree are projects and tasks moved forward at a reasonable pace with a curious management style

  4. To what degree are projects and tasks moved forward slowly and consistently where the value of quality is preferred over efficiency?

  5. Does an indecisive culture prevail?  

All organizations have forms of hierarchy whether you call each other by title, name, office, or something else. Let’s ask more questions: 

  1. Do the members of an organization work through official channels with precise job descriptions moving forward at a slow pace?

  2. Do members occasionally work outside official channels with general job descriptions moving forward at a quicker pace?

  3. Are members encouraged to challenge official channels with loose job descriptions moving forward at a fast pace?

Cultural Clarity will help your organization identify its current levels of hierarchy and how they function.

All organizations are aggressive to some degree about valuing people and tasks. Some organizations choose their people to fit the tasks, whereas others must fit tasks to their operational process. More questions: 

  1. How oriented is the organization towards people when making decisions?

  2. Do the executive leadership understand that people drive the organization in its productivity and performance?

  3. Do the executive leadership value tasks when making decisions believing quality and efficiency drive the organization in its productivity and performance?

  4. Depending on the service or product of an organization, does the executive leadership emphasize a particular function that includes people and task orientation?


What are the indicators of sub-cultures?

All organizations have varying subcultures unconsciously created by the traditions of individuals, previous practices, or geographical location where their members were raised as children. Subculture driven by individuals is unpredictable as the nuances of tradition are personal to each member. At the end of the day, subcultures can help or hinder an organization. 

Recognizing the key drivers in sub-cultures can help navigate them in a positive direction. Unconscious bias can simply come from the fact that people in organizations today are increasingly multicultural and multigenerational. This natural fact means that some members in an organization can be unaware of their behavior. 

  1. How does an organization mitigate unconscious bias, if at all?

  2. Does the organization have a process for role modeling interculturally and cross-culturally with multicultural and multigenerational members?

  3. When conflicts arise – and we all know they do – there are many ways to bring resolution, but does the organization have methods of conflict resolution that addresses preexisting mindsets?

  4. To what degree is social intelligence implemented in the organization to address words and behaviors that have an impact on everyone? Higher levels of social intelligence tend to create higher levels of trust, whereas lower levels create the opposite.


How is organizational culture managed?

To fully appreciate and understand the culture of any organization, cultural traits need to be identified. These traits are the activities that characterize day-to-day business. Typically, there are three types.

The first is what I like to call ideological culture that are the sum of the beliefs, ideals, and values that members in your organization consider fundamental. If you are not aware of how this trait functions, listen to the words frequently used that shed light on intellectual and emotional interactions. 

The second is material culture seen in how members work with and support each other. This is mostly seen in how resources are used with people in the organization that help and enhance each other’s work. In short, a material culture is about collaboration.   

The third is commonly called social culture amplified by what happens outside of work. Observing the roles and responsibilities of members in your organization outside of their job can be quite revealing. It can also be quite revealing in how power distributed to get something done. Are the people who pull together a Christmas office party better organized than official line managers? 

Cultural Clarity will help you identify the degree these traits impact your organization. Press here and schedule your call now.

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