What IS Organisational Culture? And Can You REALLY Change it?

An organisation’s culture could be the key to unlocking stability and growth. Yet it’s a multi-layered topic. Here’s my take on what it is, and why it matters.

Organisational culture can affect every aspect of a business.

In my experience, companies that prioritise culture tend to be happier, better-aligned places to work. More focused, perhaps. That is, everyone feels that they can communicate freely, secure in the knowledge that they’re playing an authentic part to help the organisation to meet its objectives.

But, what IS organisational culture? How should we define it, and what does it mean? And equally, why is it so important?

Firstly, opinions on what it is tend to vary; there exists no one clear definition that stands out. Since the emergence of cultural theory in the early 1980s, there’s been much discussion about it, but little consensus. As a result, you’ll see several schools of thought. Moreover, there’s even ongoing debate about whether those in leadership positions have the wherewithal to influence and manage cultural change, should this be required.

Can it be done? It’s all quite tricky.

We think we know what we mean, but organisational culture explains itself differently.

This Much Is True

What you and I do understand, however, is that a) it exists, b) it can play an essential role in shaping behaviour and that c) we should all be sitting up and paying attention to its impact on the world of work, and beyond.

So, before examining why all of this matters, let’s try to get to the bottom of what it means.

Shein’s Three Levels of Culture

Imagine, if you will, a stool with 3 legs. Whilst it’s not exactly comfortable, overall it’s pretty much fit for purpose. Yet, remove one of the legs and it becomes useless and unworkable. Organisational culture is a sturdy comparison – unlike a 2-legged stool, that is.

Firstly, within a business, there are observable artefacts: visible business processes, such as a website, branding, how office premises look, the way you’re greeted when you walk into reception, and so on. You can see these things, but may not be able to decipher them. As in, what does everything mean?

Next level down are what I’ll call espoused values, which generally give us a greater level of awareness; in effect, an organisation’s strategy. This may include their goals and objectives, a mission statement, even their values – in summary, where an organisation is headed in the medium to long term.  Again, we can see these, and start to make sense of what’s going on.

Finally, the largest but best-hidden part of an organisation can be found in its series of basic assumptions and beliefs. Think iceberg. The biggest part is “under the water”, and not unlike what happened to the Titanic, can sink your ship. You don’t know it’s there, but it can do the most damage.

Here, my experience tells me the above is about your organisation’s feelings and thoughts. Their basic understanding of what they can talk about – and what they can’t; their subconscious recognition of what they can do, and what’s out of bounds, without even knowing that they know it.

Such as?

Those myriad, small interactions that happen on a day-to-day basis. The notions and limitations that are the source of values and action within a business.

Importantly, these 3 levels of culture will vary from sector to sector.

For instance, it’s easy to see that a long-established public sector organisation will be a chalk-and-cheese comparison to a new-era digital technology businesses.

Consider These Important Points

  • At the risk of being blunt, organisational culture is formed by the worst behaviour that you as a leader are prepared to tolerate. If you accept poor behaviour (whatever that may be), you are setting the bar low. Your employees will see it as a base level of what’s going on, and respond accordingly.
  • Your company culture is powerfully shaped by how you reward people.

You may wish to think on this: if someone is incentivised in a certain way – say monetary reward, status recognition, or promotion, their decision-making and behaviour in general will show itself in a particular way. This may, or may not be entirely good.

  • The people who impact on culture may not necessarily be in your leadership team. Rather, they are the employees with influence, such as your Head of Recruitment; responsible for bringing people on board, overseeing certain operational processes, and they have budget.

Think your FD has clout? You may want to think again.

  • Organisational culture is not set in stone. It can be developed and changed. It can shift in a positive way; indeed, organisations are dynamic, so their cultures should morph, too.

My Definition of Organisational Culture

I offer my view, as one of many:

Organisational culture is a system of values, beliefs and behaviours that shape how work gets done in an organisation.

When you align your enterprise’s culture to its strategy (one of the 3 levels mentioned above), things get easier. Why? Because you’re a leader, not an operational manager.

Setting an example and being a role model will be the most powerful things you will ever do.

And, you can do it.

It All Starts with You

It’s your duty to uphold the values and beliefs of your operation solely through how you act, and how you make decisions. And, as a result, it becomes easier to execute organisational strategy.

Your words matter. Your actions matter.

What’s your natural style? Understanding how your personal fit dovetails with your company’s culture can drive change. Collaboration is key, as is empathy and understanding. My common mantra is that organisations are made up of people, and nowhere is this truer than in discussions around culture. Connecting with your employees’ emotions, guiding and motivating them literally shows them the way to a greater purpose.

Culture matters. A confident, affirming culture produces motivated staff. It has a lower turnover. Your people are productive because they want to be.

By the way, as an organisational consultant, it’s not my role to change things in the enterprise that you lead. In fact, I literally can’t do this. Transformation comes from within.

Where are you now, and where do you need to be? I can help you understand what’s going on, and enable you to see a bigger, clearer picture.

Then, it’s up to you. Go for it.

See my other posts on culture here.

You may also find this article on HBR of interest.

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