The Culture Question

group of multi cultured people holding up question marks

While there is agreement that culture exists, and that it plays a crucial role in an organization’s success, there is less agreement on what organizational culture actually is. The concept of culture can be very vague and confusing to grasp. While it is largely an invisible force – like the wind – it can still be felt.

No two cultures are the same. A distinct element of culture is that it is the only thing that is truly different from other organizations.  Products and strategy can be copied, but organizational culture is like DNA, unique to each individual organization.

Organizational culture is made up of elements such as the organization’s values, mission, leadership style, and expectations for how employees treat customers, clients, and each other. Here are some other ways to describe organizational culture:

  • How things get done and how people interact.
  • Attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies that define an organization.
  • The values that are the norms of the workplace.
  • The principles and rituals that hold the organization together.
  • Observable patterns of behaviors in an organization.

Culture is like a personality. In an individual, personality is made up of values, beliefs, and attitudes that shape how a person behaves. In an organization, it is the shared values, beliefs, and attitudes that shape how the organization behaves.

In short, culture is the behavior that results after a group defines a shared way of working together. It is important to note that the process of defining how we work together is not always intentional, and that the rules we have for working together are normally unspoken – although they can and should be spoken.

Notice in the proceeding description of culture that it is the behaviors that truly shape an organization’s culture.  Individual and shared values, beliefs, and attitudes influence culture, but it is the behaviors that result out of these things that are most significant.

While organizational culture isn’t physical, it is felt every day in the way people work and engage with each other.  Culture is represented in the language we use, the stories we tell, and even our daily work practices. Whether we are walking to get a coffee, attending a meeting, or eating lunch, organizational culture is present.  Sometimes simple things like what is hanging on a wall can tell you a lot about an organization’s culture.

Culture is important to understand because once it can be defined, we can more easily identify problems and develop strategies to create better cultures. We believe that culture is the key element that shapes whether people like where they work or not – that culture is the vital factor in influencing happiness, work relationships, and job satisfaction. In the context of creating a great place for people to work, having a clear understanding of what culture is, and in turn what your own organizational culture is, must be a priority.

Purchase my book, The Ordinary Leader: 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization
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Randy Grieser
CEO, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance
and the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute.
Author, The Ordinary Leader – 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization.
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