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Understanding Organizational Culture

February 28, 2018

Every organization has one. Part of it is intentional, and part of it is accidental. It has developed and endured for years, so it would take years to change. It’s your organizational culture.

 

How does a culture develop? How do you determine what it is? How do you change it? We’ll answer the first two questions in this article.

 

Your culture is how things get done, how people treat each other, and what is most important in your organization. John Kotter defines it as “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” You can sense the culture after being there a few days or even a few hours as an employee. In a church or other non-profit, it may take a few weeks or months of attending activities, but once you get more personally involved, it starts to become clear.

 

Why is it important? Whether you realize it or not, it impacts just about everything you do, how things get done, and how people treat each other. It will smooth some paths and create barriers to other paths. It attracts some people and repels others. It may move you toward your vision or hold you back from it (or both at the same time). 

 

The founding leader or core leadership group of the organization most often establishes the culture. The organization takes on their dominant personality traits, including both strengths and weaknesses. Some of this is intentional and positive, such as the culture of innovation at 3M Company and the culture of bold but simple design at Apple. I worked with a large auto dealership that had a strong culture of personalized customer service that came from the founder, who was the grandfather of the current GM. However, much of the resulting culture is actually unintentional. Some of this unintentional portion may be positive, but it is just as likely that it is not what the founders or current leaders would consciously choose. A hospital OR team I worked with identified a culture of criticism and negativity which were a reflection of some of the founding personalities.

 

Then as an organization grows from its initial size and form, the culture can and probably will evolve and shift as the dynamics of the relationships and how things get done also shift. This provides another huge opportunity for unintentional cultural characteristics to emerge. A church I worked with identified a culture of avoidance of taking any risks that I doubt was true of the new church plant several years ago since planting a church is an inherently risky endeavor with a high failure rate.  

 

So how do we identify the culture of our organization? I see the core of the culture in the VALUES of an entity.  These values are NOT necessarily the stated values that you’ll find on the wall and the website, although one or two of those may actually be true.  Usually, through interactions with those working and serving in an organization, through stories, by observing, surveying, and by asking questions we can discern the REAL values that are at work.

 

You may have heard one of the better-known true stories about Southwest Airlines and their stated and real value of FUN. During the interview of a group of pilot applicants, they asked each of the men to put on flight attendant spandex shorts along with the suit coats and ties they were wearing and conduct the rest of the interview sessions dressed that way! What in the world were they doing? Making sure their pilots don’t take themselves too seriously to exhibit the core value of fun on the job. And, sure enough, one of the candidates accommodated them by walking out the door and leaving the interview rather than embarrass himself.

 

It’s most helpful to identify your values in 3 categories. Real Core Values are those that are true of your organization today. You were intentional about making them true, and you want them to continue to be true. If they are real values then they should NEVER be violated. When they are, it’s cause for concern, discussion, and corrective action.

 

Aspirational Values are what most stated values really are. We would like to think they are true, but we can’t really defend or prove that they are. They may even be the total opposite of the real culture. But if they are truly aspirational and we are committed to make them true, we have to be in that for the long haul. We must be fully willing to do the hard, long, intentional work to change the culture to make them real. To be brutally honest, most organizations don’t have a clue about what that really means and what it will take, although they may have the best of intentions.

 

Unintentional Values are just as true of the organization as the Real Core Values, but we don’t have a desire to maintain and strengthen them. In fact, we may need to do hard cultural change work to get rid of some of them. The church mentioned above decided to adopt an Aspirational Value of Faith, with the definition including “to attempt faith-oriented goals.”

 

So you can see how absolutely critical it is to understand your current organizational culture and how it is impacting you positively and negatively.

 

But how do you CHANGE your organizational culture, especially when you want to move it to the opposite of where you find it today? That will be the subject of our next article.

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