What 'Corporate Culture' Really Means, And Why So Many Companies Don't Get It

by Jane WatsonTalent Vanguard via @bi_contributors

While completing my undergrad in Anthro, I was President of the students’ Anthropology Society. (Yep, I was that cool). So, you’ll understand that the topic of organizational culture is of particular interest to me.

And organizational culture is having its HR moment right now…articles, blog posts, seminars- everyone seems to be talking about culture!

That’s why it’s especially unfortunate that we are so sloppy when it comes to what we mean by 'culture'.

Prescriptions for how we can change our organization’s culture are tossed around like recipes, with barely a mention of what we mean when we say ‘culture’. This is not just about semantics. It’s actually really important: sloppy thinking leads to sloppy actions, and frankly, that’s reflected in too much of the current discourse about organizational culture. As a profession that still struggles with gaining the credibility we deserve, HR simply can’t afford to be so imprecise about something we claim is so important.

So, What is Culture?

Well, that’s a question that continues to be open to debate, but let’s not get existential. For our purposes we can draw on some key concepts from the social sciences that can be used as tools in thinking about what we mean by ‘organizational culture’:

  1. Culture is enacted: that is, culture is continuously created by every member of your organization, through their day-to-day participation in the organization. It’s dynamic, shared, crowd-sourced; not static and unchanging.
  2. Culture is “how we do things here”.  It provides members with (largely unspoken) rules for how they should behave to gain and maintain social ‘membership’ in the organization.
  3. Culture is manifested in a variety of ways, including:
  • Language –shared words or labels your organization uses for things.
  • Rituals – such as Town Hall meetings, the summer BBQ, award ceremonies etc
  • Dress code  – how people are expected to dress in the course of doing their work
  • Symbols – the meaning attached to corporate symbols
  • Decision making – how important organizational decisions are made and communicated
  • Conflict resolution – how conflicts are expected to be handled- discussed or avoided?
  • Status- who is recognized and esteemed, both formally and informally?

So, to summarize, this is (to some degree) a circular process: culture, or “the way we do things around here”, is created collectively by an organization’s members, whose actions are then guided by the shared culture, and by acting in accordance with the culture they further legitimize and reinforce it.

What Culture is Not:

  1. It’s not your employer brand: that’s a targeted, tailored message for an audience. Your organization’s culture is not necessarily what you say your organization’s culture is.
  2. Culture is not monolithic. It’s dynamic, it’s crowdsourced. It’s not something you take out of a box and sell to your employees during orientation. They (and you) are creating and recreating it every day.
  3. Because culture is transmitting from, to, and between the members of your organization every day (not from one central point), it’s actually quite difficult to change culture without a critical mass of people consistently ‘transmitting’ the new culture.

Why It’s REALLY Important That We Lose the Sloppy ‘Culture’ Thinking

I keep seeing blog posts, articles, webinars and presentations directed at HR people that use the word  ‘culture’ to mean a whole variety of superficial, simple things that are not culture. These articles are often advancing  the idea that culture can and should be changed to give an organization a competitive advantage, increase engagement, decrease turnover, etc. etc.

But this sloppy thinking about what culture is means that prescriptions based upon that thinking are at best half-baked, and sometimes total nonsense (sorry, but I don’t think that’s an exaggeration). If HR is going to claim (or be handed) yet another mantle, that of ‘Organizational Culture expert’, then we need to do much, much better at defining what culture is, what it is not, and to think critically about why, if and how organizational culture change efforts should be undertaken.

Let’s Avoid This Sloppy Thinking About Culture!

This is a handful of the sloppiest ideas that are floating around out there like bad viruses. Avoid the sloppy!

1. Culture Must be Homogenous Across the Organization

I’ve read stuff that takes as its underlying premise that an organization’s culture needs to be uniform across the entire workforce in order for leaders to effectively change, harness and use culture as an advantage.

Warning:  If you are employed in a place where the culture is uniform across the entire workforce, I regret to inform you that you are not part of an organization, you are a part of a cult. Don’t drink that glass of Kool-aid! Don’t marry Tom Cruise! Just pack your bag and get out now. And then repeat after me: culture is not uniform, it is not monolithic, because organizations are made up of human beings, not robots.

Nor should you want your organization’s culture to be uniform:

“We’re an innovative technology company with a culture that rewards entrepreneurial risk-takers. Our whole finance team really embraces the culture- three of them went to jail last week!”

Internal inconsistencies and subcultures exist within any culture- and usually that’s okay. The sub-culture in a department or team encourages identification amongst members of that team, it can bind groups together, and it’s often adaptive for that particular group, given the demands and constraints of their specialized function.

2. Having a Team Building or Social Event is a Great way to Change Culture

Oh boy, where to start with this one….

Warning:  Sending your employees on a team-building social event will not change your culture any more than sending the Amish to a movie will change theirs. Social events can (theoretically anyway) impact morale and team dynamics, but that is not the same thing as culture!  Culture is not so superficial that a couple of events can create any kind of lasting, strategic change.

And frankly, if your CEO thinks it’s a good idea to spend a bunch of cash on social events as a strategy to produce the vaguely defined outcome of ‘culture change’ , you have bigger problems than your organizational culture…

3. HR Can Change an Organization’s Culture

I wish this one were true, but it is definitely not. Just like employee engagement, retention and a host of other initiatives that (for better or worse) get handed to HR, we cannot hope to implement culture change alone. Because culture is enacted, dynamic and crowd-sourced, culture change should be thought of less like surgery, and more like conducting an orchestra, where the players are creating something together. You can’t just unilaterally change culture; you need your ‘players’ to willingly start playing a new tune.