EHS OutLoud Blog

What the Heck Is Corporate Culture, Anyway?

Culture is hard to understand, hard to measure and surrounded by wrong thinking - making it hard to talk about in any meaningful way.

In my experience, managers don’t like to talk about culture. Oh, they believe it exists (most of them, at any rate) and most of them think it’s important (or at least are willing to give lip service to that notion). It’s just that corporate culture is hard to define and hard to measure. Add to that the fact that the whole idea of “corporate culture” is surrounded by wrong thinking—e.g., that corporate culture is synonymous with employee morale and satisfaction—and you end up with a concept that’s just hard to talk about in any meaningful, effective way.

And if it’s hard to talk about culture, it’s certainly going to be difficult for organization leaders to manage culture in any meaningful way.

In order to talk about culture, then, we need to have a clear, common picture of just what culture is and what it does that’s important for the organization.

To illustrate how we’ll define corporate culture, let’s imagine two organizations. The Rock Bottom Company has, what we’ll call, a “Fix the Blame” culture. With no more information than that admittedly pejorative label, we can imagine some things to be true about the company.

What would we think the communications style to be?  Is there an open and free-flowing sharing of information, or is information held close to the vest and used as a weapon in some cases and protection in others?  What would we think about the level and style of teamwork and collaboration? 

Are individuals and departments working together, sharing thoughts, ideas, information and resources?  Do they seem eager to work toward common goals, or are they more likely to be engaged in “turf protection” and unproductive competition?

How would we imagine decisions are made?  How do we see problems being addressed and resolved?  How are goals and objectives being set?   When different ideas, facts, and opinions are being held, how is agreement and consensus managed?   What is the approach to learning?  Or to innovation?  How does Rock Bottom Co. go about motivating and reinforcing high levels of performance, if they do so at all? 

It’s not difficult to form a picture of the sort of culture that probably exists at Rock Bottom Company, is it?

On the other hand, the Head and Heart Company has a “Fix the Problem” Culture. Once again, it’s not that hard to get a picture of the sort of climate that might exist regarding communications, decision-making, planning, collaboration and so on.

So, culture exists, and it makes a difference.  The important question with respect to the extant culture is always, “Does our culture support the development and sustenance of a sustained strategic advantage?  Or does it hinder it?  If sustained strategic advantage depends on getting new products to market quickly and often, does our culture hinder or help?  If sustained strategic advantage depends on making operating and customer service decisions quickly, does our culture hinder or help?  If sustained strategic advantage depends on implementing new technologies quickly and effectively, does our culture hinder or help?” 

Sadly, not many organizations have given much thought to these questions.

Of course, not every organization culture can be tidily categorized into one of two types (e.g. Fix the Blame or Fix the Problem). My point is that the concept of culture has, as a core element, consistent behavior across the organization. In other words, everybody in the organization is behaving the same way over time. No one is surprised by the behavior of others in the organization because everyone is responding to the same set of behavioral signals, cues, and reinforcements in the same ways. In the “Fix the Blame/Fix the Problem” narrative above, you were able to make educated guesses at the sorts of consistent behaviors each culture likely contained because we’re all familiar with the sorts of cues and signals that likely exist within each culture. They serve as reminders and “reinforcers” for members of the organization as to appropriate behavior.

Imagine that you have been hired as a new manager for Acme Dynamite Company. Pulling into the parking lot on your first day, you notice that the parking spaces closest to the front door of the building have large signs indicating that each is reserved for a specific senior manager. Those parking spaces represent a small window into the culture of the organization. In any case, your own behavior is likely to be impacted in your first few seconds at your new job; e.g., it’s very likely that you are going to park in a different space, even if it’s at the far end of the lot.  It’s also likely that you’ll continue parking somewhere other than those spaces throughout your career at Acme Dynamite. As long as you are with the company, you’ll be presented with similar cues and signals as to how you should behave and how you can expect others to behave.

You may learn that senior managers get to meetings whenever they please while everyone else is expected to be on time. You may learn that performance evaluations are treated as a chore with no particular inherent value to the organization. Or you might learn that your supervisor genuinely follows up on ideas that you present to her. You might learn that managers take performance evaluations seriously, asking for and following up to assure that you create improvement action plans. You might learn that senior managers, two or three levels above you, regularly come by your office and those of your colleagues, for small talk and conversation. In all these cases, you are presented with cues and signals that will impact your behavior.

The behavior of others in the organization, then, make up the most important cues and signals. Imagine that, on your second day of work at Acme Dynamite, you saw one of your co-workers pull into a vice president’s parking space. You ask your colleague about his pulling into a senior exec’s space and he replies, “Yeah, those signs are old and nobody pays attention to them. Most of the managers whose names are on the signs retired years ago and they just never got around to taking the signs down.”  A colleague’s behavior provided a new cue that contradicted the first one you saw, and you’ll probably adjust your own behavior accordingly. You learned that strict punctuality was expected at meetings because you saw everyone else get to a meeting on time. You learned that managers value their subordinates’ ideas because your own boss got back to you quickly with a response to an idea that you provided her. And you saw these behaviors over and over again.

Corporate culture then is made up of behaviors that are consistent across the organization. When new members of the organization see these behaviors, they emulate them and so the culture is sustained. In particular, they are consistent behaviors with respect to eight activities that all organizations engage in at one time or another:

  • Communications
  • Problem-Solving
  • Decision-Making and Planning
  • Motivating for Performance
  • Collaboration and Teamwork
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Managing Agreement
  • Innovating

Manage these activities and you manage culture. Improve how you and everyone else in your organization carries out these activities, and you improve culture. Change how you and everyone else in your organization carries out these activities, and you change culture. It’s as simple … and as difficult … as that.


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