Why you need to examine your own business culture

Businesses grow up with a certain ‘culture’ – it seems simply to develop, often without intention. Check out this article for why you need to examine your organisation’s culture and for some useful questions to ask yourself.

In our social lives we recognise unwritten rules – like inappropriate language, for example. In our business lives there are also unwritten rules, which seem to ‘morph’ into the company’s culture, and assume a life of their own. Culture often just evolves.

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.

The problem with this natural evolution of a company’s culture is that it can fail to support the organisation. Quite often the evolved culture ends up at odds with the strategic direction of the company.

Business cultures need to be designed

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 managers 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.

Examine your own business culture

How many of the rules and beliefs in your organisation 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?’

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who designed the culture in your business?
  • How appropriate is it for the direction the business is now going in?
  • How consciously do you discuss the culture when you create your strategy?

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