Organizational Culture Defined

We’ve talked a lot about organizational culture, but haven’t necessarily defined it for you. Part of that is because every culture is different, built on different normative values and beliefs. However, it’s still useful to talk about the purpose of culture. In addition to it helping groups define shared identities, beliefs and practices, it also serves as a survival mechanism.

Culture was created as a way for us to build patterns of interaction with one another and the larger society, it became the mechanism that guided those behaviors and ultimately in our early development was about survival.

Culture can really be defined in three segments. The most noticeable are the practices and the artifacts that represent cultural norms. These are things such as dress and appearance, symbolism and stories/jokes. It’s the tip of the iceberg, it’s what most people see and would immediately recognize.

But the reality is that culture goes deeper than that. The middle segment is represented by the values held within a group. These are represented by the aspirational value set (what we want to be) and the descriptive set (what describes good or bad in our culture).

Underlying all of this are a group’s basic assumptions. It’s the oft-taken for granted aspect of a culture. It’s the least questioned and the hardest to understand or see for those internal to a group. This is about thought patterns and perceptions. It is about feelings and emotions, what’s acceptable to show within your group (e.g. anger in public) and what’s not acceptable (e.g. crying).

The basic assumptions tend to be brought to life when an outsider comes into the culture and begins to question the ways of getting things done. This is fairly common when onboarding new hires or bringing consultants if to an organization.

The challenge for organizations is to start thinking through the beliefs that underpin their culture and to think through the values, descriptive and aspirational, that they want to be calling out.

When organizations begin this exercise, they can then start the process of aligning strategy, processes and culture to truly start driving impact in their organization and industry.

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