Organizational Culture

Time and time again I have heard executives relate how a given organizational effort (such as an acquisition, change program, or entrance into a new market) was made very difficult by the failure to address culture.

Culture is the set of underlying values, beliefs and assumptions that determine how things actually get done.

The Hidden Power of Culture

So, what is culture, anyway?

Culture is the set of underlying values, beliefs and assumptions that determine how things actually get done. Culture is an integral part of any organization, and different parts of one large organization can have several sub-cultures, often very different.

Can an organization's culture change?

Yes, but it’s never easy.  Culture is a phenomenon that is influenced both by top-down forces  (mechanistic forces) and by bottom-up forces (organic forces). While organizational cultures can be strongly influenced by the example of the leader, cultures do not change solely by a decree from above.  Changing an organization’s culture requires a serious commitment of time and energy.

There are important variations of culture in organizations. The underlying values, beliefs, and assumptions will strongly influence organizational (and individual) behavior, and certain characteristics will emerge.  Here are some important “flavors” of organizational behaviors that are driven by culture.  Please note that these are not mutually exclusive:

The Ethical Culture

No group of people, including criminal enterprises, admits to being unethical. All organizations and groups claim to stand for noble values, applied at a minimum within their own group. (Groups often consider anyone outside their group to be beyond those same standards, which is the source of much unethical behavior.) The true test of ethical behavior is in the individual and group actions – do they treat others in the same manner as they themselves would like to be treated? What keeps some organizations to a high ethical standard, and why do some veer off the path of what is considered correct behavior? n The good news: research indicates that most people have a sense of obligation to others, a conscience. I call this large percentage of people (roughly 95% of the adult population) “the good but fragile majority.”

The bad news: this “good but fragile majority” can learn to be unethical, either under pressure to preserve something (like a job) or by following group norms that treat people outside the group as undeserving of ethical treatment.

  • The really bad news: a small percentage of people (roughly 5% of the adult population, with a stronger representation among males) appear to be “wired” to be utterly self-centered; this group of Bad Apples will act in their own self-interest, even if that conflicts with ethical norms. What are the implications for your organization?
  • What type of organizational culture can strengthen the “good but fragile majority” to do the right thing?
  • What kind of organizational culture identifies and ejects the Bad Apples? What kind attracts them?
  • What about the larger context – society, nationality, history? How can these factors influence behavior? This question is particularly pertinent in global operations.

Developing an ethical culture goes well beyond posting a Code of Conduct.

The High Performance Culture

What is meant by the term “high performance culture”? It is an organization that:

  • Consistently performs well, making sound decisions and executing superbly
  • Possesses strong internal oversight mechanisms to enable quick corrections
  • Displays an intense desire to compete and succeed, shown by an abiding pride in the success of the organization
  • Individually at every level of the organization demonstrates a commitment to do “more than my fair share” to make things work

This culture embodies the essence of cumulative improvement, the greatest force for generating prosperity in history. What factors create and sustain this culture? What could prevent this culture from taking hold? Let me help you address these key questions.

The Innovative Culture

Today the entire world craves growth, and most observers believe that a significant driver of growth is innovation. In the past 200 years, innovations in both process and technology have been profound. How can an organization’s culture foster innovation? Consider:

  • Innovation can come in two forms – incremental improvement and abrupt, or quantum leaps
  • What drives people to innovate? What does the historical record suggest? (History suggests that organizations that tolerate a fair degree of eccentricity can foster innovation from within.)
  • Why have so many good ideas taken so long to reach fruition? n What are the organizational impediments to innovation? Can an organization “produce” innovation? Is innovation an efficient process?
  • What are the links between innovation and novelty, risk, and personal reward?

If your organization is addressing these questions on innovation, know that I am here to assist.