When discussing the concept of organizational culture, there are as many definitions as there are
misconceptions. This drives the need to explore its many nuances, to gain clarity and develop a foundation for further discussion on more dynamic culture-related applications in the workplace.
WHAT IS ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE: THE ACADEMIC LENS
A wonderful starting point when dissecting organizational culture is the work of Edgar Schein, Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. His book entitled Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th edition) speaks to the concept of culture in great depth. Schein defines culture as:
“A pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.”
He further describes three levels of culture:
1. artifacts (visible)
2. espoused beliefs and values
3. and basic underlying assumptions (unconscious; not visible)
We must also look beyond the academic lens to understand how individuals working in business define organizational culture. Michael Watkin’s analysis in What is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care? (Harvard Business Review) speaks to the concept of organizational culture
Culture is the soul of an organization, wherein the behaviours of employees are the manifestation of this culture; the organization’s hands. In organizations:
“Culture is how organizations ‘do things’.”
“In large part, culture is a product of compensation.”
“Organizational culture defines a jointly shared description of an organization from within.”
“Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”
“Organizational culture is civilization in the workplace.”
“Culture is the organization’s immune system.”
We complemented this by interviewing executives in the Toronto area. Organizational culture is:
“… the heart and the soul of the company.”
“… the function of the why.”
“… an embodiment of the values.”
“… top down and must be lead and lived by leaders”
APPLICATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE
We (personally) define culture as:
“… an organization’s character. Sometimes strong, always imperfect, often changing. It is the culmination of values, stories, and observable behaviours, best tested in trying times. Culture is the soul of an organization, wherein the behaviours of employees are the manifestation of this culture, the organization’s hands. A strong culture has a more deterministic effect on these behaviours; a weak culture, vice versa. So you not only need to create the culture most effective for your success, but you also need to galvanize this culture at all levels to promote the desired outcome.”
This deeper understanding of organizational culture allows us to better examine our own workplace cultures. To this end, we recommend the following:
For organizations without a stated or defined culture:
1. Use the concepts above to determine what your organizational culture is;
2. Use the tool The Cultural Web by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes to deeply assess your organizational culture. This tool contains 6 interrelated elements that make up the paradigm of culture, namely: i) Stories; ii) Rituals and Routines; iii) Symbols; iv) Organizational Structure; v) Control Systems; vi) Power Structures.
For organizations with a stated culture:
1. Complete a culture audit. Examine your stated culture and values, and determine if there is alignment with your vision and mission;
2. Complete a culture congruence audit. Work with a consultant to develop behavioural anchors that align with your stated culture and values and ensure that these anchors align with actual observable behaviours.
In all cases, continue to strengthen your organization’s people. If culture is truly the organization’s soul, then it needs to be nurtured. Invest in people through employee wellness programs, coaching initiatives, and learning and development.
1. Strong and healthy organizational cultures are aware, and align behaviours with values
2. We must rely on ‘community’ to keep culture alive, and to ensure culture and values are congruent and clarified
3. Much of organizational culture lies below the waterline. We need to seek it out through stories, rituals and values
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Gary LeBlanc (B.Eng, MBA) – CEO of Ikkuma and positivity grenade – spent over a dozen years managing strategic operations for tier 1 companies. He’s now following his passion… to engineer a solution for our generation’s wellness.
Beth Corcoran (MA, CHRL) – Managing Director at Corcoran Consulting and shoe enthusiast – is a business consultant and coach, based out of Toronto, Canada. Beth has worked with thousands of employees as a coach, advisor, trainer, teacher and clinician.