Organizational culture

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Summary
No one really knows what organizational culture is, how it arises, and how it can be shaped — if at all.

What do you think organizational culture is?

This seems to be the most common definition:

“The way we do things around here.”

Source: Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy.
Followed closely by this one, by Edgar Schein, whose work in the 1980s and beyond helped make culture a mainstream management concept:

“A pattern of shared basic assumption [sic] that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein
Here’s another definition:

“The embodied values, principles and practices underlying the social fabric of a business, which permeate its actions and connect the stakeholders to each other and to the company’s purpose, people and processes.”

Source: Conscious Capitalism®.
A richer definition:

“The invariant patterns of organisational behaviour, considered as a whole, that connect, inform, and provide a context for even the most diverse actions of individual managers right across an organisation, that help to distinguish behaviour in that organisation from behaviour in others, and that are not deliberately encoded in the organisation’s formal rules.”

Source: Culture and Epistemology: media of corporate stability and strategic change, by James Wilk.
But this set of patterns we call culture is nothing more than a convenient abstraction. In other words, it’s an invention. We make it up.

“Organizational ‘reality’ is a social construct that emerges through dialogic processes.”

Source: Dialogic Organization Development (pdf), by Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak.
Organizational culture is a construct: “a model devised on the basis of observation, designed to relate what is observed to some theoretical framework.”

Source of construct definition: Collins English Dictionary, via The Free Dictionary.

When we observe a culture, whether in an organization or in society at large, we are observing an evolved form of social practice that has been influenced by many complex interactions between people, events, situations, actions, and general circumstance.

Culture is always evolving.

Though at any time it can be seen as having a discernible pattern, e.g., reflecting an ethos of competition or cooperation, dominance or equality, seriousness or playfulness, this pattern is an abstraction imposed on the culture from the outside.

It is a pattern that helps the observer to make sense of what is happening in the culture by summarizing the sweep of history in retrospect, but it is not synonymous with experience in the culture itself.

Our understanding of culture is usually much more fragmented and superficial than the reality.

Source: Images of Organization, by Gareth Morgan, cited in Organisational culture and the psychological contract (pdf), by Roderic Gray.


The genesis and evolution of corporate culture

Eric van den Steen pinpoints the origins of the corporate culture concept in these passages from On the Origin and Evolution of Corporate Culture:

The idea of culture as shared beliefs or values goes back at least to Burns and Stalker (1961) who, in their seminal discussion of ‘organic’ versus ‘mechanistic’ organizations, define culture as “a dependable constant system of shared beliefs.”

Other early contributions were the work of Baker (1980) and Schwartz and Davis (1981) who defined culture respectively as “some interrelated set of beliefs, shared by most of their members” and “a pattern of beliefs and expectations that is shared by the organization’s members.”

A key impetus in popularizing the notion of culture was the bestseller In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman (1982), who defined culture as ‘shared values’ but stressed that this includes ‘basic beliefs.’

Donaldson and Lorsch (1983), which is often considered a seminal work on corporate culture, do not mention the word culture, but talk instead about managerial beliefs.

Most of these authors suggest that a culture can have subcultures.

Probably the most cited perspective on corporate culture is that of Schein (1985). He defines culture as having three levels.

The most visible, but most superficial, level is that of culture as a pattern of behavior. It is “the way things are done around here,” the norms, the stories, the symbols.

These behavioral patterns reflect a second, deeper, level of culture, which are the firm’s shared values.

Shared values are, on their turn, driven by the third and most fundamental level of culture: shared assumptions.

Kotter and Heskett (1992) base their definition on Schein (1985), but eliminate the distinction between beliefs and values.

Works cited

Some other ways of thinking and talking about culture

  1. Culture is purpose in action.
  2. Culture is dynamic.
  3. Culture is conversation.
  4. Culture is subjective.
  5. Culture is a metaphor

1. Culture is purpose in action.

Culture, if it does exist and is not just a concept invented by anthropologists and management theorists, is a reflection of the enterprise’s purpose. The purpose of maximising shareholder value will manifest as one kind of culture. The purpose of world enrichment will manifest as another kind.

Every enterprise needs to adopt a culture of change and that begins with a commitment to a clearly defined mission¹. Culture without a purpose has no value. It’s just a bunch of stuff that people have gotten used to. On the other hand, culture that is dedicated to mission and values can focus an enterprise on the challenges that lie ahead. So it is not enough to promote a strong culture. You have to ask, culture in the service of what?

How To Build An Effective Culture, by Greg Satell
¹ Greg Satell uses the word mission in the same way that I use purpose, i.e. to mean ‘reason for existence’.

2. Culture is dynamic.

It is futile to try and change ‘the culture’ from one fixed state to another. The fixed state is an illusion: ‘the culture’ is being recreated each moment in the mind of each person.

Culture is constant change

Culture is constant change, by Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid
This is a “Change Piece” we created for Zappos, helping them along with their new Holacracy adventure.

If your company has a strong corporate culture, it’ll inevitably suffer from a strong paradox: that the thing that gives your company its solid grounding—i.e. your culture—is just as ephemeral and transient as you are. Culture is constantly evolving and changing.

So how can something so fleeting be “strong” and “grounded”?

Well, that’s the paradox. Somehow you figure out how to live with it.

How do you learn to do that? By understanding that a strong culture is not permanent, but IT IS resilient.

Ergo, strength is in its resiliency, not in its permanence.

And once you understand that, adapting to change is much easier.

D’accord.

Source: Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid | Buy a print of the artwork

3. Culture is conversation.

Advocates of social constructionism and dialogic organization development say that culture arises from the conversations that occur throughout the organization. Therefore, if we want to change people’s perception of culture, we must change these conversations.

What any particular group believes is “reality,” “truth,” or “the ways things are”, is created, conveyed, and changed through mental models, stories, narratives, and other symbolic interactions. Thus, how things are framed and talked about becomes a significant, if not the most significant context shaping how people think about and respond to any situation.

Source: Dialogic Organization Development (pdf), by Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak.

Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.

Source: Group Works

Change the Conversation: Change the Future.

The strategy for an alternative future is to focus on ways a shift in conversation can shift the context and thereby create an intentional future. Reconciliation of community, or a future different and not determined by the past, occurs through a shift in language. Operationally, this means engaging in conversations we have not had before.

Peter Block, Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation (download pdf)

4. Culture is subjective.

Create My Own Culture, by Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid

by Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid | Buy a print of the artwork
There is no such thing as ‘the culture’ of an organization. It’s nothing more than a subjective, mentally-constructed concept. You are the culture. It’s not ‘out there’—it’s ‘in here’.

Each person will have their own unique experience of the culture at any given moment, and will make sense of this experience in their own unique way.

So you must take responsibility for the culture you are creating. Be the change you want to see in the world, and—through your words and deeds—be the culture you want to experience in your organization.

Here’s the rub: depending on who you talk to, values and culture can be quite elusive. In other words, people can share an experience, and even share language around it, but will their interpretations of ‘what was’ or ‘what is’ (i.e. their realities, and their perception of values) align?

Source: Co-Design & Culture, by Gunther Sonnenfeld, on Medium.

Culture is like a holograph. Each of us is a fragment. Individually we contain within us the entire dynamic of the culture. When we come together, we interact, and our experience of the culture becomes clear, compelling, real, and lifelike. We are tempted to think it is real—and separate from ourselves. But it is not separate—it is us. Culture and performance are intimately linked to how its members think and behave. The organization we contribute to creating is the one we leave in the wake of our thinking and acting, and the higher our position, the bigger the wake. One high-leverage way to change the system is to look in the mirror (as we navigate system complexity and resistance) and change ourselves.

Source: Sharing power—why it requires deep personal change (pdf), by Robert J. Anderson, Founder and Chairman of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group, and William A. Adams, CEO of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group, in ChangeThis.

5. Culture is a metaphor

The idea of a ‘Culture’ is actually a metaphor. It is an image or understanding that is symbolic of something that we can’t actually access directly. Culture isn’t something you can see or touch, rather we infer it from the behaviours, conversations, words, images, clothes, artefacts, art, decision and other patterns we notice within any defined group of people, an organisation for example. In effect the culture of an organisation is the inferred and invisible curriculum and customs of that group of people.

Source: What is an organizational culture? by David Wilkinson, The Oxford Review.

Mosaic Theory

In the last few years our understanding of culture and how we take on cultural attributes has shifted away from the idea that culture is a homogenous solid entity to the understanding that:

  • Cultures are dynamic, ever changing entities
  • Cultures don’t exist nor can be defined on their own. All cultures are in fact made up of a mosaic of different sets of behaviours, thinking and beliefs from a wide range of sources.
  • Individuals navigate the range of cultures they encounter and learn to ‘fit in’. So for example our family will have a culture that most likely is very different from the culture at work or from a social group.
  • From an individual’s perspective cultures are made up of identifiable layers or tiles which are shared or not shared between the various cultures they encounter on a daily basis.

This understanding is called the Mosaic Theory.

Source: New research and a new understanding about culture change in organisations, Part 1 of 2, on Oxford Review, citing researchers from the University of Durham in the UK and the Jacobs University Bremen, Germany (not named in the article but possibly John Dumbrell and Matthijs Bogaards respectively).
See also Wikipedia—Cultural mosaic.

Beware of making culture a scapegoat

When people aren’t achieving what they should be achieving and things aren’t going the way they should be — and if senior managers can’t pin the blame on some specific issue — they often declare: “We have to change the culture around here.”

Source: To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to “Change the Culture”, by Robert H. Schaffer, in Harvard Business Review.

More points of view

I continue to believe that ‘culture transformation’ or the breezy notion of ‘designing’ an organization’s culture are lovely ideas that typically signal a fundamental misunderstanding of what culture is. The term as it used in business today is a dramatic oversimplification of a complex idea, stripped of nuance and imbued with magic.

I’d go so far to say that I now believe that talking about culture in our organizations is not particularly useful to achieving the goals that culture change is usually aimed at.

This is partly because the word itself tends to distract from a robust exploration of what problem an organization is actually solving for, and also because in my experience it obscures the role of individual accountability for behaviours.

Source: Why HR Should Talk Less About Culture, by Jane Watson, on Talent Vanguard blog.

Legions exists believing they are magical masters of organizational culture. They try to codify and change. They do enormous damage. Culture is only revealed and served, never controlled.

Source: John T. Maloney, Colabria (private communication) | See also Business Oxymora Meets Culture.

Culture. It’s read only.

That means you can look at it, pick it up, investigate it, but you can’t go directly at it and change the blighter. Oh but people try though, as if the sheer power of nagging will break through the inertia of the thing. Like Mrs Doyle¹ offering a cup of tea.

“But what’s it mean: ‘culture is read only’?”

It means culture is the result of something else. You can see it, but you can’t change it. That would be like thinking you can stop the sun shining by rubbing sun tan cream on yourself.

Source: When I hear the word “values”… I reach for my gin, thinkpurpose.com.
¹ Mrs. Doyle is the housekeeper in the British comedy series Father Ted. Read more

Org culture is like a shadow: You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.

Culture is like a shadow. – Niels Pflaeging

<a “title=”View the Twitter post »” href=”https://www.nielspflaeging.com/”>Niels Pflaeging on Twitter | view source

Don’t think about how to create a culture, just do the right things for you, your customers, and your team and it’ll happen.

Source: You don’t create a culture, by Jason Fried, co-founder, Basecamp, on Signal v. Noise.

The cover of HBR’s April 2016 issue. Big, bold and bright orange. You Can’t Fix Culture! An article explaining how culture emerges from good business practice. It’s not something you can impose. Or design. Or change from the top. It just happens.

This challenges conventional thinking about culture. And about time. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Source: HBR says, “You Can’t Fix Culture!” Well, duh! by Richard Claydon, on LinkedIn Pulse.

The corporate leaders we have interviewed—current and former CEOs who have successfully led major transformations—say that culture isn’t something you “fix.” Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model. The culture evolves as you do that important work.

Source: Culture Is Not the Culprit, by Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague, both with Harvard Business School, in Harvard Business Review.

New understanding about culture

In the last few years our understanding of culture and how we take on cultural attributes has shifted away from the idea that culture is a homogenous solid entity to the understanding that:

  • Cultures are dynamic, ever changing entities
  • Cultures don’t exist nor can be defined on their own. All cultures are in fact made up of a mosaic of different sets of behaviours, thinking and beliefs from a wide range of sources.
  • Individuals navigate the range of cultures they encounter and learn to ‘fit in’. So for example our family will have a culture that most likely is very different from the culture at work or from a social group.
  • From an individual’s perspective cultures are made up of identifiable layers or tiles which are shared or not shared between the various cultures they encounter on a daily basis.
Source: New research and a new understanding about culture change in organisations, on The Oxford Review.
See also Wikipedia—Cultural mosaic.

How does one get one’s hands, conceptually speaking, around the cultural concept? It seems so definite—a term referred to again and again in both the anthropological and popular literature. And yet, as one examines the concept, it appears increasingly elusive. Different people perceive it in different ways, and, perhaps, not unexpected given its popularity, the concept often carries—in its different renditions—various political overtones.

With culture, the devil often appears in the details. Many people embrace the concept in the abstract. But they argue, sometimes heatedly, over what the term actually means. As [Elvin] Hatch writes [in Theories of man and culture]: “Even though the term has been discussed in countless books and articles, there is still a large degree of uncertainty in its use—anthropologists employ the notion in fundamentally different ways”.

Source: WHEN—A Conversation about Culture (in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 103, No. 2, Jun., 2001), by Robert Borofsky, Anthropology Program, International Studies, Hawaii Pacific University.

Culture is a group of people who share mythologies. That is, they share assumptions about behaviours demonstrating positive or negative values. Essentially, the more mythologies people share, the stronger the culture.

Source: Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, by Ian MacDonald, Catherine Burke, and Karl Stewart (contributed by Stefan Norrvall).

It is imperative that we understand the beliefs, symbols, myths, ideologies and folklores – the ‘culture’ – of the modern organization as a form of social control. It is not a form of social control created and manipulated by management, but a process in which management, workers and the community at large participate alike.

Source: Organizational Culture: Origins and Weaknesses, by V. Lynn Meek (1988), cited in Organizational culture and the psychological contract: a review of the literature (pdf), by Roderic Gray.

The notion of ‘corporate culture’ runs the risk of being as disappointing a managerial tool as the more technical and quantative tools that were faddish in the 1970s. Those of a skeptical nature may also question the extent to which the term corporate culture refers to anything more than an ideology cultivated by management for the purpose of control and legitimation of activity.

Source: Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis (pdf), by Linda Smircich

Some theorists advance the view that organizations be understood as culture. They leave behind the view that a culture is something an organization has, in favor of the view that a culture is something an organization is.

Source: Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis (pdf), by Linda Smircich

The moral of the story is that a company need never sink resources into “culture change” programs. If they keep advancing an increasing number of performance improvements that empower their people—and if they distill and exploit the learning from their achievements—they’ll wake up one day and discover that they are working in a radically new culture.

Source: To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to “Change the Culture”, by Robert H. Schaffer, in Harvard Business Review

Further reading

5 Questions to Ask About Corporate Culture to Get Beyond the Usual Meaningless Blather, by Bill Taylor, on Harvard Business Review

10 Principles of Organizational Culture, by Jon Katzenbach, Carolin Oelschlegel, and James Thomas, on strategy+business

Business Oxymora Meets Culture, by John T. Maloney, Colabria

To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to “Change the Culture”, by Robert H. Schaffer, on Harvard Business Review

Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate, by Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule, on Harvard Business Review

Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation (pdf), by Peter Block

Co-Design & Culture, by Gunther Sonnenfeld, on Medium

Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis (pdf), by Linda Smircich, in Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Organizational Culture (Sep., 1983), pp. 339-358

Culture Isn’t Everything, by Greg Satell, on DigitalTonto

Deal and Kennedy’s Cultural Model, by the Mind Tools editorial team

The Four Conversations: Daily Communication That Gets Results (initiative conversations, understanding conversations, performance conversations, closure conversations), by Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford | Excerpt (pdf)

Getting to the Critical Few Behaviors That Can Drive Cultural Change, by Kristy Hull, on strategy+business

HR’s Sloppy Thinking on Culture, by Jane Watson, on Talent Vanguard blog

How to build a culture of innovation in your business, by Nick Udall, CEO, nowhere, on LinkedIn Pulse

How To Build An Effective Culture, by Greg Satell, on DigitalTonto

HubSpot Culture Code, a set of 128 slides originated by Dharmesh Shah, Founder and CTO, HubSpot

Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility, a set of 124 slides by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

On the Origin and Evolution of Corporate Culture, by Eric van den Steen (pdf)

What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? by Michael Watkins, in Harvard Business Review

When I hear the word “values”… I reach for my gin—thinkpurpose.com

Why Culture Doesn’t Just Happen, by Katie Burke, Vice President of Culture and Experience, HubSpot, on Medium

Wikipedia: Corporate culture—many models and theories are presented here

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