Organisational Culture

Organisational Culture is a Critical Element of Corporate Performance
Organisational Culture

We Know It When We See It

Organisational Culture:  The problem 'I know it when I see it but I can't define it!'

The term 'Organisational Culture' is often heard mentioned in the workplace in this context even though it refers to tangible performance and behaviour.

There appears in us all, an inherent almost subconscious understanding of what the term Organisational Culture or just 'culture' generally means. 

We often hear colleagues casually mention:

  • '...that's the way we do things here...',
  • 'that's their culture over there'
  • 'that is part of the culture here',
  • 'it's a cultural thing'
  • 'there culture enables them to do that...'
  • 'the culture is terrible there...'

However, when asked to specifically describe or define what organisational culture is we often struggle.

This lack of ability to define culture presents us with even more challenges when we have identified culture as a problem or something which needs to change, grow or improve.  

Without clarity of definition and consensus agreement in the definition, there is little hope in delivering improvement as everyone has a different view.

When asked either individually or as a team how we improve or change the culture for the 'better' we tend to struggle with practical examples of what to do.  We are unclear about exactly what makes up culture and how we can specifically influence its component parts.

Organisational Culture is Important

However, asked if culture is important and whether improvements in culture may be required to improve the way people feel about their work or behave we often answer with a resounding 'yes!'.

The probable reason for this is that we all know that the culture of an organisation and the behaviours that go with it has an important influence on our behaviour, how we feel each day, how motivated we are and whether we feel our needs and expectations can be satisfied.  So we know it is important despite the difficulties with definition.

Searching for a Definition

The original study of organisational culture stems from the science of anthropology.  

From this base organisational science studies grew and various thoughts and concepts were put forward on how to define Organisational Culture.  

Different definitions of Organisational Culture have come from these organisational behaviour and design studies.  Here are some of the more often referenced definitions:

The culture of an organization refers to the unique configuration of norms, values, beliefs and ways of behaving that characterize the manner in which groups and individuals combine to get things done.

Eldridge and Crombie (1974)

Culture is a system of informal rules that spells out how people are to behave most of the time.

Deal and Kennedy (1982)

Culture is the commonly held beliefs, attitudes and values that exist in an organization.  Put more simply, culture is 'the way we do things around here'.

Furnham and Gunter (1993)

Unfortunately these studies do not currently lend themselves to one all encompassing view of what Organisational Culture actually is.

See also detailed topics on Organisational Cultures and National Cultures

Organisational Climate:

Culture or Climate

An additional complication with the concept is the confusion in many managers minds about terms like organisational culture and organisational climate.  Organisational Climate or just 'the climate in that team' is another term that is often heard within the organisation.  Again definition is not clear and our instincts and intuition gives us guidance on how we classify the 'climate' in a group of people.  Important as it is the Organisational Climate tends to be less regularly spoken about than the Organisational Culture.  

Reasons Culture is Important

If it is instinctive, personal, has no common definition nor consensus view on what it is, then why is organisational culture and climate important to you, as a member of an organisation and a leader within it?  Here are some of the reasons it is important:

  • Organisational culture is intrinsically understood by us all to influence our behaviour, motivations and feelings at work. 
  • Culture affects our performance and that of our teams. 
  • As leaders and members of teams we are constantly looking for improvement in performance and to meet new demands so culture is an inherent contributor to that performance. 
  • Culture is at the heart of all our assumptions about 'how things are done here', its at the heart of our assumptions about work, what can be done here and what cannot.
  • 'Cultural fit' is often quoted as a reason for difficulties in performance.
  • 'Cultural fit' is sometimes the reason people do not gain employment or leave an organisation.

With these significant impacts and affects culture and climate should be very important as a key element of understanding and improving our performance at work and that of our teams and business units.

Supporting this view are writers like Atkinson who suggests that Organisational Culture:

  • is significant in representing the assumptions about what is OK and what is Not OK in the way we work individually and together
  • it drives what behaviours as members of the organisation and leaders within it we find acceptable and are prepared to develop.

Helping Get to a Definition

In a general sense we can see organisational culture as:

  • a shared meaning, perception or set of definable characteristics held or demonstrated by the members or observers of an organisational unit or group that distinguish it and differentiates it from other units or groups.

Some of the characteristics which have been put forward as a way of defining culture are:

  • Innovation and Risk Taking
  • Attention to detail
  • Outcome orientation
  • People orientation
  • Team orientation
  • Aggressiveness
  • Stability

These characteristics can be rated on a scale from low to high and then used to compare against other units using the same scale and measurement process.

Other writers like Sonnenfeld developed 4 cultural 'types' to help classify an organisations culture:

  1. Academy - places where people progress steadily through structures through specific proficiency
  2. Club - places with more generalists where loyal, committed 'fitting-in' are important, as is age and experience
  3. Baseball Teams - places where there are stars, risk-takers, entrepreneurs, specialists and innovators, where talent is rewarded on outcomes and risks and rewards can be high
  4. Fortress - survival focused, need turning around and offer little security

Sonnenfeld found that many organisations could not neatly fit into each category and were often a blend particularly when the organisation was undergoing transformation or transition.  Sonnenfeld did find that certain individuals were attracted to each culture producing a personality-organisational cultural match.

A Culture Describes

Organisational culture describes an organisation.  It revolves around perception and some shared common perceived characteristics.  It is not about whether the organisation is liked or not.

This reliance on perception is important to a leader.  Sometimes it will not be the results but the perception of the results that can be a units downfall.

Cultures Within Cultures

We are all aware that culture exists on many levels.  Within any organisation their will be different units, groups, departments, projects, special areas and teams that can all exhibit their own culture.  This is what makes understanding organisational culture and the way cultures affect performance of interest to the leader.  

There can be no assumption that one culture that exists in one team will exist in another.  Yet, from an overarching perspective both teams may be in the same functional unit and there will be a shared perception both within these teams and from outside of the culture of the functional unit as a whole, inclusive of both teams of people.  These perceptions can help or hinder performance and the progression and development of people within the teams and sub-cultures.  

This understanding of how culture and perception can influence the way we and others behave and interact with our teams is important if high performance and working together is an aim.

Strength of Organisational Cultures

Another important characteristic that affects performance is the strength of an organisational culture.

The strength is a measure of the intensity that the perceptions as defined above are held both within the members of a unit and from outside.

Strong cultures can influence its members strongly and this can be a problem both in helping cultures change or in encouraging challenge and growth where is challenges the beliefs and perceptions strongly held.

Strong cultures can encourage 'groupthink' and complacency as everyone is agreeing with each other and believes their perception is 'right'.

On the positive side strong cultures can breed loyalty and cohesiveness as the common shared perceptions bind and build the esteem of the unit.

How Can Organisational Culture Help You

All organisations have a culture whether we like the perceptions or not.  Understanding yours can help you build and develop your units and teams as it can:

  • produce a cohesive unit with common bonds and perceptions
  • be a force for esteem and morale building
  • create uniqueness and differentiation from others including competitors
  • attract talent
  • convey a sense of identity
  • pull people together
  • set standards
  • help people make sense of what is going on and what is trying to be achieved
  • help define core understandings of what it is to work here and what is required
  • can influence people
  • can be a barrier to change
  • be a barrier to expression, innovation and development of diversity
  • be a barrier to cross-functional working
  • be a barrier to personal development
  • be a reason to exit an organisation

Organisational culture, the impact it has and the perceptions it creates is important for any leader wishing to improve their performance.

To help you understand more about Organisational Culture and how you can use that knowledge to help you team or unit improve use the topics below.

Organisational Cultures and National Cultures


Organisational Climate