What is Organizational Culture?
Culture is a word that is thrown around quite a bit in today’s business climate as leaders think about building and growing strong organizations. In a constantly changing and evolving global marketplace, I believe that the culture of a company is of critical importance in terms of building and developing the organization itself.
That said, I’ve found that when many people talk about “culture” they are unsure of exactly what the word means in the context of a business. It is a word that has many definitions with no singular answer. Culture is also a concept that I find myself revisiting often to remind myself of what is actually is and why it is important to think about.
I first read about the concept of culture in college. One of the benefits about having attended Rollins College was its emphasis on liberal arts education. I found myself in classes that were more focused on the humanities and less on the hard sciences. I learned more about reading and writing than I did about physics and calculus. One anthropology course I took featured the book, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. It explained how and why cultures form within groups and why, for example, the cow is so revered (or sacred) in India beyond its spiritual implications.
As I started to think and learn about more business, I was struck by different examples of leaders modeling the behaviors they wanted to see within their own companies. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner wrote in his book, Work in Progress: Risking Failure, Surviving Success, that he would consciously pick up trash in his parks when he saw it. The message? While some CEOs would assign menial tasks like debris removal to the nearest low-level employee, Eisner wanted to promote a climate of teamwork, and all-hands-on-deck collaboration. He also believed that every person should be called by his or first name. His name tag said ‘Michael’ just like that of a parking attendant or server.
I also saw negative examples of group culture form. I once worked with a company whose leader used fear and threats to advance an otherwise positive agenda. I saw how his management team adopted this style as well and how the climate became rigid, uncomfortable and unforgiving. The result? More people were focused on simply not getting fired than they were on advancing the company’s mission.
I’ve also learned that a winning culture doesn’t just happen on its own. Great companies like Ritz-Carlton have intentionally designed their cultures just like an architect designs a building. The New Gold Standard is a book that talks in great detail about how Ritz-Carlton conducts morning meetings every single day about the facets of its culture. One morning’s subject might be about anticipating customer needs while the next one might address the importance of referring to co-workers as “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The lesson? Culture can be written about or discussed, but it has to be reinforced regularly.
So, how can we actually define organizational culture?
As our team thinks about growing and developing a winning culture, there are a number of definitions that have surfaced. Here are a few ways that others define culture:
- A system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. This definition is similar to many textbook definitions. It is a codified set of facets that guides a group to an accepted standard of behavior. Ritz-Carlton has taken a comprehensive approach to this and hires and manages based upon this set of beliefs.
- How we do things here – Short and sweet, I heard the leader of a national not-for-profit describe his definition of culture using just these five simple words. Using the example above, Michael Eisner demonstrated that the way Disney “does things” is by using an all-hands-on-deck approach. His actions said, “I’m the CEO but no task is beneath me.”
The rules of the road. “Rules” can seem like a scary word, and antithetical to the cultures of companies like Southwest Airlines, which have fun, sing on the airplanes, and wear funny hats. But rules can be comforting to people, because they let teammates know what they can expect. For example, I know how everyone should behave when I come to a 4-Way stop sign. I wait my turn and so do the three others at the intersection once we arrive. Rules also keep you safe in high-risk situations. My guess is that award-winning trapeze teams have some pretty deeply held rules when it comes to performance.
At Findsome & Winmore, we are thinking long and hard about building and developing a great culture. In our quest to do so, I hope these different examples and definitions we have found are helpful in your quest to do the same.