Start a conversation about organizational culture if you want to provoke vigorous debate. All of us universally agree that (a) it exists, and (b) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations. However, there is little consensus on what organizational culture really is, never mind how it influences behavior and whether it is something that the leaders of an organization can change.

Culture is to recruiting what product is to marketing. To attain and retain top talent, you need to create an organizational culture that people will love to be a part of. You'll often hear conversations that revolve around inquiries about workplace culture and responses that are something along the lines of, "Ping pong tables, really nice people, free pizza & beer on Fridays". But, organizational culture is more than cool workplaces and friendly people. 

Culture is something you feel when you visit a new country or get introduced to a new group of people. You also get a sense of culture when you enter a place where an organization resides and conducts business. When cultures are strong, they're palpable. High engagement, open and honest communication, calculated risks are good indicators of a vibrant, flourishing culture. Politics, dread, and distrust are signs of a developing toxic culture. 

Countries and regions form the context for an organization's culture. Each profession has its own culture - which is why every organization, irrespective of its industry, type, or size needs its own culture. It may seem like investing in culture is investing in something intangible. However, research suggests a direct link between high achieving organizations and healthy work culture. 

Defining organizational culture

Every organization wants a healthy culture, but few can articulate what it entails and means to them. The whole concept can seem hazy – hard to pin down but something worthwhile. Perhaps, the simplest definition of organizational culture is the way an organization gets things done. In truth, it is an accumulation of behaviors and beliefs over time that can either nurture success or wear people down and sap the soul out of an organization. To properly define an organization’s culture, the inclusion of values, norms, rituals and artifacts together indicate what is important to an organization.

  • Behaviors are visible. You can see what people do and say – it’s an on-display trait. Sending emails over the weekend is a behavior. Being on time is a behavior. Being a team player is a behavior, too. Behaviors like these reflect your culture. 

  • Values are invisible. Transparency, integrity and accountability are all good values. Behavior is a better indicator of culture when there is a conflict between behaviors and values. For example – an organization that conducts meetings post working hours may not value the work-life balance as much as they say they do.

  • Norms are unspoken rules of conduct. Like teams in an organization having lunch together, or routinely gathering in person for meeting or conference calls. Colleagues who take their lunch break separately or join meetings remotely violate the implicit understanding and risk falling down the pecking order as a result.

  • Rituals are patterns of behavior with personal meaning. Visiting the work café for morning tea is a routine. It’s not a ritual as there is no particular meaning behind it. However, your team deciding to don pink shirts every Friday to showcase their team ethic is all of you engaging in a ritual.

  • Artifacts are all tangible objects found in the workplace that are valuable to the organization. A coffee-table book written about the company and its founders reinforces the values of an organization. An open workspace is a sign of collaboration being more valued than hierarchy. 

In other words, organizational culture is like an iceberg. With behaviors, rituals and artifacts, perspectives can be easily drawn based on what you can see. Other aspects like values and norms are trickier to spot. Being aware of all these characteristics above and below the surface is essential in shaping the culture and the results you seek.

Organizational culture is single-handedly defined by the behavior of the people you work with.

Why organizational culture matters

You have to be intentional if you want to shape or change the culture of an organization. Managing culture is an activity that should be managed by design, rather than by default. It is largely about focusing on behavior between people since interactions are the way we understand a culture. You can shape the kind of work culture you want in your organization by nurturing and encouraging certain behaviors. This also helps you sustain the health of an organization and the health of those who are part of it. A good culture contributes to your business goals and carries numerous benefits:

  • A productive organizational culture is difficult to replicate and can act as an important competitive advantage. Competitors can copy your product and crib about your business strategy, but they can only envy your business when you have a strong culture.
  • By having everyone focused on your organization’s mission and vision, a well-defined culture keeps the employees of an organization collectively aligned, rowing together in the same direction.
  • People like joining companies with rich culture. It’s plain to see that an organization cares when its employees demonstrate increased loyalty and enthusiasm. A compelling culture creates a sense of pride.
  • An efficient culture contributes to the cohesion between departments and teams. It reduces distrust and encourages corporate camaraderie. It spurs collaboration by cultivating a we’re-all-in-this-together attitude.
  • Your most important differentiator as an organization is your brand. A powerful culture nurtures a better brand by providing an environment in which it can thrive.
An open office is an indicator of an open organizational culture.

Managing organizational culture

Organizational culture is the most important factor that leads to holistic work experiences. Transforming the culture of your organization is primarily determined by the desired behaviors that lead to preferred results. The role of behavior here can’t be overstated. Simply put, managing culture means managing behavior. 

Many organizations often ignore developing a strategy that focuses on behavioral change and solely focuses on results. In theory, this makes sense – simply do a good job of communicating and reinforcing the desired results, and employees will do what it takes to produce them.

In reality, this rarely works. A more beneficial strategy is to view success at the pinnacle of a 4-stage pyramid with a bottom-to-top approach. First described in Change The Culture, Change The Game (by Roger Connors and Tom Smith), the results pyramid at the bottom begins with:

  1. Experiences, which drive
  2. Beliefs, that encourage
  3. Behavior, which leads to
  4. Results.