Can You “Fix” Organizational Culture?

glue sticksDiscussions about organizational culture are everywhere. Peter Drucker’s saying of “culture eats strategy for breakfast” has been around for ages (or so it seems). It has become not only a cliché but is also the go-to-quote for every person who opines on the topic.

The concept is not meant to imply that culture is the polar opposite of strategy; it’s not about one vs. the other. Rather, in my estimation, this quote reminds us that our articulated strategies will not succeed without an understanding of how organizational culture co-exists with strategy in order to fuel the achievement of desired outcomes. Organizational culture, whether frenzied and fun or slow moving and staid, must support and contribute to the attainment of organizational goals.

In order to fully integrate culture with strategy we need to ensure everything is in alignment as we work to ascertain if our culture (the “how we really do stuff around here’) presents a solid foundation that allows us to execute on our strategies.

So how to begin? We start with understanding:

What Culture Is

Culture is the collective behavior of the people who are part of the organization as formed by organizational vision, values, norms, systems, beliefs, symbols and traditions. Culture affects the way individual employees and groups interact with each other as well as how they interact with customers, clients and other stakeholders. In any given organization, there is not one person (or group) who defines culture. There is not one person (or group) who owns it. There is not one person (or group) who controls it.  The culture is owned, and adjusted, by everyone.

What Culture Isn’t

Culture is not a poster on the wall or a listing of PR-generated values and platitudes on the company web site. An organization is not, as an example, a “collaborative” one merely because the CEO says it is. Culture cannot be manufactured, designed out of whole cloth, or ‘made’ to be a certain way by putting ping-pong tables in the break room and stocking the refrigerators with free water. Culture is not aspirational; although one can set a goal and work relentlessly towards shifting the culture in a fully supported and purposeful way. Culture is what exists today. And it may change, imperceptibly, tomorrow.

What Culture Includes

  • Vision – The organization’s vision (or mission) serves as a guidepost for defining organizational values and assists in orienting every employee in how they approach their jobs, how they act and how they make decisions.
  • Values – While the company’s mission/vision clarifies ‘purpose,’ articulated values define the expected behaviors.
  • Practices –While values and expected behaviors may be described, what people actually do (practices/norms) is what determines the true culture. If a stated organizational value is “open communication” yet the actual practice is for people to hold back on voicing an opinion or sharing information, there’s a disconnect between values and practice.
  • Traditions – Every organization has a unique story, history and narrative. Developing from that, over time, are traditions; some may be positive while others may be legacies that should no longer impact the organization of today. An organization that in 2015 promotes a flat hierarchy and states ‘all employees are treated equally’ may want to eliminate the tradition of having an executive-only parking lot.
  • Environment – The location, design and aesthetics of a workplace can impact culture; these sorts of things, naturally, affect the behaviors of people in the workplace. Open floor plan? Corner offices for some and cubicles for others? Is the workspace bright, airy and loud…or dark, quiet and monastic?
  • Symbols – The visible and physical manifestations of an organization, symbols are defined as “things that can be experienced with the senses and used by organization members to “make meaning.” Symbols are noticed through sight, sound, touch, and smell, and their impact has significant organizational consequences.

When evaluating existing culture with an eye, perhaps, to ‘fix’ it, there are numerous tools you can utilize. But when beginning this endeavor remember this one important item: Any assessment of current culture requires input from all employees…not just the management team, HR professionals or senior leaders.

Examining the actual state of your culture is a critical first step before attempting any shift, adjustment or change. Culture, after all, is the glue – the fastener – that binds people in the organization together.  And people need to be involved in the process.

All the people.

Resource: “Symbols in Organizational Culture” (Rafaeli, Worline)


this post originally appeared at HR Leads Business

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