Understanding the Organizational Culture

An on-going organization already has its own unique culture. Before any major change initiative that seems to call for organizational culture transformation, it is necessary that the present organizational culture is well understood. The wide-ranging literature available about organizational culture has addressed the topic of How to Understand the Organizational Culture from different perspectives and in differing contexts. A very elementary paper like ours, obviously, will have to be content with referring to a few of the representative excerpts from such literature.

The first step in understanding the organizational culture is to observe[1]:

  • Try to become an impartial observer of your culture in action. Ask yourself questions such as: How do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved (and are there conflicts)? How do senior leaders interact with middle managers and employees? How do middle managers interact with reporting employees?
  • Watch for emotions. Emotions are indications of values. People do not get excited or upset about things that are unimportant to them. Examine conflicts closely, for the same reason. Do people seem engaged, interactive, excited, happy, friendly, morose, or withdrawn? Do they smile and interact with you as you walk by their desks?
  • Look at the objects and artifacts that sit on desks and hang on walls. Observe common areas and furniture arrangements. Are they interactive or are they sterile? In one memorable company, to several consultants who were walking through the cubicleville, the sterileness of the environment was striking—no family photos, plants, knick-knacks, desk accessories, or toys. The company president informed the visiting consultants, privately and under strict confidentiality, that he was closing the company at the first of the month—and he didn’t want the employees to know. The consultants informed him that the employees already knew. Their empty workstations were a testimony to this knowledge.
  • When you observe and interact with employees, watch for things that are not there. If nobody mentions something that you think is important (like the customers or expected sales growth), that is interesting information. It will help you understand your organization’s culture.

It is also considered that the best way to get a grasp on organizational culture is to identify the elements that go into a successful one. The Harvard Business Review identifies six components[2]:

  • Vision: A shared vision stems from a carefully crafted mission statement that answers the following three questions: Who is being served? What needs are being satisfied? How are those needs being satisfied?
  • Values: Values exemplify the behaviors that are expected from employees.
  • Practices: Practices explain how the vision and values are put into effect. Leadership must set an example for workers to follow.
  • People: Workers need to demonstrate not just excellent capabilities and a high level of productivity, but an ability to align to the company culture and vision.
  • Narrative: Organizations must share this with employees — even those who have just started — to make sure everyone understands where the company came from and where it is headed.
  • Place: The physical workplace environment can have a strong impact on culture. Recent trends have leaned toward open and highly collaborative workspaces, but there has been some backlash against this thinking. Authors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn have identified four types of organizational cultures in their ground-breaking book, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, Based on the Competing Values Framework.

The following four keys provide an alternative method to understand the organizational culture[3]:

Key 1: Recognize That You Do Have Company Culture

Every organization has company culture, whether intentionally cultivated or not. In short, it refers to the combination of values, goals, ethics, and expectations that govern and influence employee behaviors. If negative behaviors have been left to develop unchecked, with no guidance or direction, then yes, a company culture that supports bad habits may have taken root.

It is not enough to simply announce that vision. You must first figure out what (and how) current behaviors need to shift in order to develop a roadmap to achieve those changes. That’s why it’s so important to define your current company culture before you try to steer it in a new direction.

Key 2: Analyze Your Company’s Priorities

If you want to better understand your culture, look at your company’s priorities. These goals and initiatives reveal what your organization values and what it does not (both explicitly and implicitly). Questions to ask yourself about company priorities may include:

  • Do your employees hear more about increasing the bottom line or increasing customer satisfaction?
  • Does your company give employees the freedom to experiment and innovate when it comes to solving problems, or is following protocol more important?
  • Is taking calculated risks seen as a distraction or opportunity?
  • How much (or how little) does your company invest in ongoing training efforts, both in terms of money and time?
  • When your company considers adopting certain efforts or changes, are the thoughts and feelings of both leadership and employees considered?

Exploring questions like this can give you clues as to what kind of culture your company has cultivated. Is it one with a workforce that’s empowered, engaged, and encouraged to innovate and improve? Or a culture where the bottom line is often prioritized? If your company’s priorities give you pause, it may be time to explore a culture transformation.

Key 3: Inquire About Company Culture

Your company culture is made up of behaviors, those that are encouraged, permitted, and unhindered. To understand what kind makes up your organization, it’s best to go directly to the source: your employees.

Consider ways to get feedback on which behaviors currently serves the company well and which need to be discouraged or changed to elevate your organization. Gather feedback from all levels of employees, from executives to front-line managers. Surveys, company-wide assessments, and focus groups can all help create a clearer picture of the behaviors that define your current company culture. Again, the key is to engage every employee as you ask for feedback because the sum total of all employee contributions and behaviors are what make up your culture.

Key 4: Look to Your Leaders

While every employee contributes to company culture, leaders have more impact and influence. Examine the messages your leadership team puts forth, and whether action follows those words. Leadership may espouse values and a mission that excites employees, but if leadership itself doesn’t “walk the walk,” their behavior can contribute to a culture of distrust and disengagement. Culture starts from the top down, and your leadership sets the tone for what is permissible and encouraged in your company and what’s not.

On the highest level, artifacts of culture are what we can directly see and feel when entering an organization such as office space, symbols, dress codes, etc. In the middle, are espoused values of culture, formally documented within organizational vision, values and mission and informally expressed in what people say why they do (informed by interviews). The most fundamental aspect of culture is the collective, taken-for-granted, underlying assumptions, norms, beliefs and feelings that drive behaviors (informed by deep questioning and participant-observation). Understanding the underlying assumptions of the people in an organization is essential to come out with insights into organizational culture and transformation. This is often done by examining the connections between the perceptions of different aspects of culture — see SPEC’L framework. For example, an organization may claim to value ‘innovation’ but does not practice ‘openness’ (a value that supports innovation) because of underlying assumptions behind the proper distribution of power and information. As anthropologist Margaret Mead states,

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

Explaining these gaps and contradictions can reveal insights into how specific organizational culture (or sub-cultures) works. It is also worth noting that larger organizations, especially ones with units operating in silos are bound to contain several sub-groups and sub-cultures.[4]

It must be remembered that even as these approaches are valid and useful, but in many cases they are ignoring or not paying attention to what’s below the organizations surface. They have a tendency to focus on “The way we say we get things done” and don’t focus on “The way we really get things done”.[5]

Ignoring what’s below the surface will ultimately undermine organizational change.

The value of an organization will be measured by its capability to change

When creating a list of questions to assess the current culture, take into consideration aspects above AND below the surface:

[1] How to Understand Your Current Company Culture  – by Susan M. Heathfield

[2] Organizational Culture: Understanding What It Is and How to Improve It

[3] 4 Essential Keys to Understanding Your Company’s Culture By Dave Root

[4] Looking at Humor in Organizational Culture – Shaun Lim

[5] What have the invisible man and the organizational culture in common