If you want to provoke vigorous debate, start a conversation about organizational culture. Although there is universal agreement that (1) it exists and (2) it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what it is. actually organizational culture, no matter how it influences behavior and if it’s something leaders can change.
This is a problem, because without a reasonable definition (or definitions) of culture, we cannot hope to understand its links to other key elements of the organization, such as structure and incentive systems. Nor can we develop good approaches to analyzing, preserving and transforming cultures. If we can define what organizational culture is, it gives us insight into how to diagnose problems and even design and grow better cultures.
As of May 1, 2013, I hosted a discussion around this issue on LinkedIn. The more than 300 responses included rich and varied perspectives and opinions on organizational culture, its meaning and importance. I include several distinctive viewpoints below, illustrated with direct quotes from the LinkedIn thread – and then offer my own summary of these views. (There were often several posts with similar themes, so these are just early picks; unfortunately, it was not possible to thank everyone who made helpful contributions.)
“Culture is the way organizations ‘do things’.” —Robbie Katanga
Culture is made up of consistent and observable patterns of behavior in organizations. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” This view elevates repeated behaviors or habits to the heart of the culture and minimizes what people feel, think or believe. It also draws our attention to the forces that shape behavior in organizations, and thus highlights an important question: are all of these forces (including structure, processes, and incentives) “culture”? or is culture simply behavioral outcomes?
“To a large extent, culture is a compensation product.” —Alec Haverstick
Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives. The best predictor of what people will do is what they are prompted to do. By incentives we mean here the set of incentives—monetary rewards, non-monetary rewards such as status, recognition and advancement, and sanctions—to which members of the organization are subject. But where do the incentives come from? As with the previous definition, there are potential chicken and egg issues. Are patterns of behavior the product of incentives, or have incentives been fundamentally shaped by the beliefs and values that underpin the culture?
“Organizational culture defines a jointly shared description of an organization from within.” -Bruce Perron
Culture is a process of “creating meaning” in organizations. Give a meaning has been defined as “a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding from the varied perspectives and interests of different individuals”. Note that this shifts the definition of culture beyond patterns of behavior into the realm of common beliefs and interpretations of “what is”. He says a crucial purpose of the culture is to help orient its members to “reality” in ways that provide a basis for alignment of purpose and shared action.
“Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals that serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.” —Richard Perrin
Culture carries meaning. Cultures not only provide a shared vision of “what is”, but also of “why is it”. From this perspective, culture is about the “story” into which members of the organization are embedded, and the values and rituals that reinforce that narrative. It also draws attention to the importance of symbols and the need to understand them – including the idiosyncratic languages used in organizations – in order to understand culture.
“Organizational culture is civilization in the workplace.” —Alan Adler
Culture is a system of social control. Here, the focus is on the role of culture in promoting and reinforcing “right” thinking and behavior, and sanctioning “wrong” thinking and behavior. Key to this definition of culture is the idea of behavioral “norms” that must be adhered to and the associated social sanctions that are imposed on those who do not “stay within bounds”. This view also draws attention to how the evolution of the organization has shaped culture. In other words, how have the existing norms contributed to the survival of the organization in the past? Note: Implicit in this evolutionary view is the idea that established cultures can become obstacles to survival when there are substantial environmental changes.
“Culture is the immune system of the organization.” -Michael Watkins
Culture is a form of protection that evolved from situational pressures. This prevents “bad thoughts” and “bad people” from entering the organization in the first place. He says that organizational culture works much like the human immune system in preventing viruses and bacteria from taking hold and damaging the body. The problem, of course, is that organizational immune systems can also attack agents of needed change, and this has important implications for the onboarding and integration of people into organizations.
During the discussion, there were also important observations moving against the view of culture as something unitary and static, and towards a view that cultures are multiple, overlapping and dynamic.
“Organizational Culture [is shaped by] the main culture of the society we live in, albeit with greater emphasis on particular parts of it. -Elizabeth Skringar
Organizational culture is shaped by and overlaps with other cultures, especially the broader culture of the societies in which it operates. This observation highlights the challenges that global organizations face in establishing and maintaining a unified culture when operating in the context of multiple national, regional and local cultures. How should leaders strike the right balance between fostering a “one culture” in the organization, while allowing local cultures to influence?
“It simplifies the situation in large organizations to assume that there is only one culture…and it is risky for new leaders to ignore subcultures.” —Rolf Winkler
Organizational cultures are never monolithic. Many factors lead to internal variations in the culture of business functions (e.g., finance versus marketing) and units (e.g., a fast-moving consumer products division versus a pharmaceutical division of a company diversified). A company’s acquisition history also plays an important role in defining its culture and subcultures. Depending on how acquisition and integration are handled, cultures inherited from acquired units can persist for surprisingly long periods of time.
“An organization [is] a living culture… which can adapt to reality as quickly as possible. —Abdi Osman Jama
Finally, cultures are dynamic. They change, gradually and constantly, in response to external and internal changes. So trying to assess organizational culture is complicated by the fact that you are trying to hit a moving target. But it also opens up the possibility that culture change can be managed as an ongoing process rather than big changes (often in response to crises). Likewise, it highlights the idea that a stable “destination” can never – in fact should never – be reached. The culture of the organization should always be one of learning and development.
These perspectives provide the kind of holistic, nuanced view of organizational culture that leaders need to truly understand their organizations — and have hope to change them for the better.