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What is Organizational Culture, Anyway?

by Kevin Eikenberry on March 5, 2012

Have you ever been in the woods, walking on a trail? If so you know that while you see the trees in front of you it is hard to describe the whole forest. At that moment, the forest for you is the trees – because you just see the trees around you. Patterns, dimension and perspective are hard to recognize when all you see are . . . trees.

Organizational culture is a bit like that. You go to work every day and just see the work. Over time you realize there are certain norms or approaches that are just accepted facts; they are “how we do work around here.” If you have worked more than one place you might start to see the differences from one place to the next, and if so, you are starting to “see” what culture means.

We often help organizations think about and consciously work to alter their organizational cultures.

Often when we know something about a topic, we forget the basics. Today we’ll talk about the basics, because they are so important. I was reminded of this fact when I received this question via email recently.

“How do I convey “Culture” to a group for whom the concept is totally alien? I coach guest services in a hotel in Mexico and I really need to get across the fact that if the hotel wants to turn their service around, they need to do it from a cultural standpoint . . . help?”

It is a great question because it gets to the heart of the matter.

To convey the concept of culture you must first recognize what culture is – and if you’ve never thought about it before, it’s hard to see.

Organizational Culture Is . . .

How we do things around here. If you want to be successful quickly in a new job, find a person that can help you understand “how things are done around here.” It is about policies and procedures. To be sure, those things written down say something about the beliefs of the organization. But the things not written down are even more powerful. It’s one thing for the training to say we return Customer emails within the business day – but when do they really get answered?

The stories we are told. The Nordstrom snow tires story is a famous example. If the stories you hear repeated officially and unofficially in the organization are about heroic actions of employees to serve Customers, that says something about the culture relating to Customers. If you hear stories about product shipping regardless of the standards, because “we have to make our numbers,” that says something too. There are stories in every organization and their messages become a part of the culture. Oh, and what do we do when we hear a story? Tell it to someone else. And the culture deepens.

The behaviors that get you promoted. Do people get promoted because they are ruthless in pursuit of personal status and glory? Are people promoted because of tenure or length of service? Or are people promoted because they have ability to do the next job? The behaviors that lead to promotion – that define success – are an embedded part of the culture. And leaders hear this clearly – it is the perceptions of which behaviors get you promoted that are at least as important as the reality.

The values the organization lives by. Most organizations of any size or age have a stated set of values. They are on the wall in the conference room, discussed in orientation and onboarding processes, and posted proudly on websites. These are a part of the culture, but only to the degree that they are lived. Stories, examples and personal observation define the true values, regardless of what is written down. And these values-in-action are a cornerstone of your organizational culture.

The list could be longer and the examples more detailed. The point is that organizational culture matters because it is pervasive and powerful. There is no such thing as an organization, group, team, or family that doesn’t have a culture. The key as a leader is to recognize what your culture is (and you may not see it clearly), and take responsibility for adjusting it to better support the goals and objectives that you have.

Culture is like a big invisible lever that moves your organization and impacts productivity, retention, customer satisfaction and much more. Once you see the lever, you can begin to adjust it and move your organization in new directions. Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” You don’t need to move the world, just your organization. Once you understand what culture is, you have the lever to create that movement.

For help with your role as a leader in moving this lever, I encourage you to read about the leader’s role in culture creation.

photo credit krow10

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Danni March 5, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Great article – well defined and so simply put. Thanks!

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