Category Archives: Organization Culture

The Water You Swim In

Culture is Like Water to a FishUnderstanding Your Organization’s Culture

Organization culture for people is like water is for fish.  It is there.  It is critical to how the organization works.  It shapes people’s interactions.  It guides how work gets done, what is considered success, who is powerful and who is not.  It is also invisible.  People are not consciously aware of it.  It is probably the single most important thing in the organization, and most people know nothing about it.

If you want to be successful in an organization, one of the first things you should do is work on understanding the culture.   You will be able to use the culture to help you be effective.  You will be able to avoid getting into trouble by understanding the rules of engagement, power and territory.  You will be able to use the informal networks to grease your requests and deliverables.

What is Organizational Culture?

The culture is the set of assumptions, beliefs, customs, behaviors, rites, rituals, behaviors and values that exist within an organization.  These sometimes come directly from the founder (think Steve Jobs), then get influenced by subsequent leaders (think John Scully, then Steve Jobs).  The culture is sometimes a creation of combined organization cultures, or an organization culture that has been transplanted into another geographic region—Apple in China, Honda in the US.  The culture is never JUST what the company says it is.  In 2000, Enron’s stated values were:

  • Respect We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.
  •  Integrity We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.
  •  Communication We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.
  • Excellence We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Obviously, there was more at work in the culture than what they said.  There were other things driving behavior.  The culture rewarded conformity and punished dissent.  Individualism was valued over other behaviors (Jeff Skilling’s favorite book was Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene.)  There was a belief that the people who worked at Enron were the “best and the brightest.”  Eighty hour work weeks were the norm.  There was a “rank and yank” performance system.  Cumulatively, these things and lots of others, describe the Enron culture.

Disney has a very different culture.  Google has a differently culture.  Organization cultures are the (organizational) DNA combination of all of kinds of inputs.

How Can You Figure Out Your Organization’s Culture?

 Answers to the following questions can help you begin to understand the culture:

  • Who founded the company and what were his/her beliefs?  About   the organization?  About the way things should be?
  • Is the founder viewed as a hero?  A villain?
  • Is the founder still with the company?
  • If not, what impact have subsequent leaders had?
  • Are any of them considered saviors?  Heros?  Villians?
  • What are the stories that are told about the company?
  • What kind of person(s) seem(s) to be favored?
  • What behaviors are accepted?  Regulated? Discouraged?
  • How does communication flow?
  • What parts of the organization’s history are important?
  • What traumas have happened to the company?  Are there psychic scars from those traumas?  Do people still talk about them years later?  Have behavioral norms been put in place to avoid the same trauma in the future?
  • What is the dress code?  How rigidly is it enforced?
  • What are the social norms?  Do peoples socialize together?  Have  lunch?  Spend time outside of work? Are there cliques?  Does inclusion/exclusion impact your career?
  • Who speaks in meetings?
  • What is the power structure? How do people break into the power structure? What kind of people are in the power structure?
  • What are the performance evaluation norms?
  • How is information shared/not shared?  Who controls it?

Once you’ve thought about these, identify the ways in which you can use/benefit from how the culture works.  Focus specifically on:

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