Latin “colere”-to tend, cultivate

Edgar Schein says, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.” For those of us working in the Organization Development profession back in the early 1990’s when those words didn’t exist in the Canadian lexicon, Schein was our guru on organizational culture. To not read his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, would have been unthinkable. 

I’d be a millionaire many times over if I was paid for the number of times I said to members in the C-suite, “If you pay attention to nothing else, pay attention to two things: 1. who you move into management and leadership positions within your organization, and 2. your organizational culture.” An organization’s culture is defined by its leaders, pure and simple. So what makes up organizational culture? Four primary elements:   1. Core Values-those things that leadership truly values the most as demonstrated through their actions, decisions, or choices, and not the  Value Statements behind the Front Desk receptionist ie.  Trust- We allow employees to make decisions on their own.    2. Rituals-those things the leadership consistently celebrates ie. Employee Reward and Recognition events.   3. Beliefs-decisions or choices made based on the leadership’s belief system ie. Employee Compensation Scale.   4.   Normative Behaviour-the social norms a population within an organization exhibits will tell you a lot about its organizational culture ie. if an employee sees that something needs to be fixed or changed outside of his or her business unit,  in order to affect change he or she first go to his or her immediate supervisor to discuss it instead of going to the source of the problem. Therefore in order to get the BIG Picture of an organization’s culture, one must also explore what the employees at every level within the Organization Chart think of their management and leadership regarding these four elements-espoused versus actual.  

If you want to analyze an organization’s culture or change it, these are the four elements of organizational culture you must probe for their current state. Until you understand what is driving the behaviours behind each these four elements of organizational culture, you will not be able to change it. Changing organizational culture is not a “quick fix!” As I stated earlier, leadership defines organizational culture and leadership comes in many forms ie. designated leaders, rank and file leadership within an organization, union leadership, etc.  If you have “followers” and people willingly listen to you then you are a true leader. If you are designated a leader and people begrudgingly follow your orders just because you’re their boss then you have a major problem in the organization and you’re not a true leader.

There are four main types of organizational culture based on a model I like by Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron:   1. Change Orientated cultures, 2. People Oriented cultures, 3. System Oriented cultures, and 4. Competition Oriented cultures.  1. Change Oriented cultures are based on Flexibility and Choice, and are Externally and Competitor focused ie. Apple. 2. People Oriented cultures are about Flexibility and Choice, and Internally and Order focused ie. Credit Unions.  3. System Oriented cultures are Internally and Order focused, and about Stability and Control ie. public service organizations. 4. Competition Oriented cultures are about Stability and Control, and are Externally and Competitor focused ie. General Electric. There is no best organizational culture, it depends on your Vision for your business and its alignment with it. Also, it is important to craft an organizational design model that best fits with your Vision and that will allow your organizational culture to thrive and be sustainable. So where do you start when developing or annually reviewing a corporate competitive strategy? Organizational Culture!    

Culture is fascinating and so important but so few people pay serious attention to it. To dismiss organizational culture as not critically important to the success of your organization is certain failure. A company can survive with a toxic culture for a short period of time (meaning even years or potentially a few decades) but it will never become a “legacy” organization. Take it seriously and monitor it or you might as well throw away all your hard work building a business you and your loved ones can be justifiably proud of. 

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