Not long ago, I found myself in a conversation with a student about organizational culture and what exactly it is. The student wanted to do his final paper on this topic. Recognizing that this is a domain that is often more popular than it is understood, I reasoned that we should probably touch base before I signed off on his choice. This student, who was quite well read and very passionate, was able to convince me that he did know enough about the topic to do to it justice. After our call, I began to contemplate what I’ve learned about organizational culture over my years of teaching, researching and consulting.
Perhaps the most common way that behavioral scientists think of culture is to take a cue from Ed Schein who describes culture as the combined habits, norms and beliefs of the people in an organization (2004). When following the Schein model, we can tell what the culture of an organization is by looking at the behaviors, artifacts and the outcomes of that organization. What kinds of products does it produce? What kind of people work there? What kind processes do they put into place? All of these things cue us into what that organization’s culture is all about. As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that even this definition of organizational culture may not be as practical as what we need to truly understand what culture is. It requires us to ask questions like ‘what is a norm?’, and ‘what is an artifact?’ Those kinds of debates can quickly take us down rabbit holes that are hard to get out of.
If someone in your organization asks you to describe the culture, a simpler way to think about it is to ask what do people in that organization take for granted? Does everyone take for granted that it is OK to be five minutes late to any meeting, or are we expected to be there on time or early? Does everyone take for granted that all rules must be followed to the letter, or does it all a matter of situational judgment? Does everyone take for granted that there will be bonuses paid everyone year, or is it assumed that the company will find some reason to avoid payouts? These kinds of things are the outcomes that define what an organization’s culture is. The question of course is why do we care about these?
From an academic standpoint, we care about culture because this information helps us predict how an organization and the people in it may react in various situations. From a management standpoint, this understanding helps us know the right ways to lead our teams. From an individual standpoint, an understanding of our organization’s culture helps us to know how to best navigate it for our most productive work lives. So the real question now is what do people take for granted in your organization?
Schein, E.H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.