What is an organisation’s culture?

Have you ever considered how unwritten rules and beliefs influence your behaviour and performance, and consequently the performance of your organisation? You will know many of the rules in your social relationships:

  • ‘So-and-so doesn’t like me to drop in without calling first’
  • ‘If I don’t call my mum every week she will worry / give me a hard time’
  • ‘You just don’t talk about politics/religion/tax/the state of the world with so-and-so’

But with regard to your working life and relationships, how many of the rules and beliefs have you ever discussed or negotiated? How many are you even aware of? For example:

  • ‘Is it OK to take risks round here?’
  • ‘Can I take an issue to someone two levels higher in the hierarchy without offending my boss?’
  • ‘Do we really all have to stay until the boss goes home – does he/she really expect it, or are we just assuming it?’

What is an organisation’s ‘culture’?

What we call ‘culture’ at work is the sum total of the assumptions, rules, beliefs and attitudes by which we operate. We pick these up from the people around us. We train new recruits in them within the first few weeks of their appointment. And we learn to operate inside the restraints they place on us, almost without realising it. Culture usually just evolves.

And that’s the problem – it isn’t designed to support the organisation, it’s just left to happen. Quite often the evolved culture ends up at odds with the strategic direction of the company. One client we worked with had been through a major turnaround, during which they reassessed everything about the business, completely altered their pricing structure and rationalised their client base. They had been in trouble, needing emergency measures and a lot of hard work to survive. An entirely appropriate culture emerged of long hours and crisis management.

By the time we came on the scene, the business had enjoyed three or four years of consolidation and profitable trading. The new strategy was to use the newly consolidated base of streamlined processes to go for growth.

But the culture hadn’t caught up! Senior management were caught in a loop of fire-fighting, ‘quick-fix’ problem-solving, long hours, and diving into the detail. Other staff were increasingly frustrated that there was no direction from above, and no role for them, while management had its hands on every detail. Good people started to leave and employee surveys showed morale to be very low.

Why? No-one had stopped to examine the organisation culture inherited from the ‘Old Era’ and question its appropriateness for the ‘New Era’. The business had to undertake a systematic process of exposing and questioning the ‘Old Era’ culture, and design and embed a new culture for its new direction.

Who designed the culture in your business?

Design an organisation to be proud of