Handy definitions in non-technical language
Culture is real, important and concrete. The term culture is widely used and yet it is often misused and misinterpreted. It is wise to avoid technical jargon to get it on the table as a core business issue.
Culture refers most simply to prevailing employee attitudes, behaviours and values as they impact:
- sense of urgency
- how things really get done: work processes and styles
- how people treat each other: communication, teamwork, corporate citizenship
- accountability: what people take ownership for and are actually held accountable for
- commitment and priorities: where employees focus their daily energy, creativity, and discretionary effort; where they take the most pride from their achievements; how hard they work and what they care about
All of these things have an enormous impact on organizational performance and sustainability. (See my blog: Culture and the Bottom Line.)
The term “culture” may sound subjective and mysterious, but everyone knows that employee attitudes and values make a big difference. Consider this scenario: it is not acceptable for employees to make all their performance targets if they do it by fudging the numbers, hoarding valuable client information, lying to customers and stabbing their colleagues in the back. That is not a desirable or sustainable way of doing business.
Everything I said in my blog about leadership and subjectivity applies equally to culture.
Cultural norms and values are not abstract theories or ideals, but can and should be:
- concrete expectations and metrics for employee behaviour, i.e., signs, indicators, or measures of success for employee effort, performance, attitudes, behavior, and/or work styles, and
- strategically relevant, i.e., the kind of attitudes and behaviour that will most help your organization achieve its unique mission, vision and strategy.
If core values meet these criteria, they will add value to your business and be fully actionable:
- you can hire, promote, and orient for them, i.e., use them as criteria for selection
- you can develop them, e.g., through training, coaching, and mentoring
- you can measure them, communicate clear and concrete expectations around them and give employees constructive feedback on achieving them
- you can hold people accountable for them
Remember: if behaviour is observable then it can have scientific, empirical validity, and be fully actionable: we are very good at describing, measuring, monitoring, coaching and changing behaviors.
What is Culture?
Here are a few definitions and thoughts that have been helpful to me over the years in my culture management practices.
“We encounter organizational cultures all the time. When they are not our own, their most visible and unusual qualities seem striking: the look of the traditionally dressed IBM salesman, the commitment to firm and product expressed by employees at Honda or Matsushita, the informality of Apple and many other high-tech companies. When the cultures are our own, they often go unnoticed—until we try to implement a new strategy or program that is incompatible with their central norms and values. Then we observe, first hand, the power of culture.” (Kotter & Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance)
According to Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel in Strategy Safari:
- Culture knits a collection of individuals into an integrated entity called “organization”
- It is the shared meaning that a group creates over time through shared experiences and history
- It is composed of interpretations of a world and the activities and artefacts that reflect these
- The shared beliefs and values that are reflected in traditions and habits as well as more tangible manifestations—stories, symbols, even buildings and products
Handy, non-technical descriptions of culture:
- Culture has been described as an organization’s self-identity: what we really think about who we are and where we are going—not what the fancy marketing brochures say
- What employees actually believe and value; not the way things should be done, but the way things actually get done; not how we “talk the talk” but how we “walk the walk”—and how our walk reflects our talk
- Culture comes down to a common way of thinking which drives a common way of acting (Manzoni, “Nurturing,” Rotman Magazine, Winter 2013)
- Culture is what people fall back on when there are no instructions. It gives you rules for when there are no rules and it provides a common language for moving forward (David House, Chairman and CEO of Bay Networks, in Fast Company, October 1998)
Challenges of culture:
- People cannot fully articulate the culture of their team or organization.
- Culture is always complex and never fully unified; there are always subcultures within any organization. Subcultures can be a powerful source of innovation. How much unification do you need; how much leeway should you give to difference (subcultures) within your organization?
- Reciprocal causality: people ask if we have to improve the business and wait to see culture begin to change or if we have to change the culture in order to improve the business. Culture management requires a holistic approach that works from both directions simultaneously.
- It is the job of each and every manager to create the culture and mindset that bring about the behaviour that helps the organization achieve its vision and strategy. Even simpler: design the culture to support the behaviour you want.
Culture analysis and taking action:
I can’t share here a process for full culture analysis, but here is the overarching logic: What is the prevailing culture in your organization and how does it serve your vision and strategy? What culture would best serve your vision and strategy?
After identifying the culture you need, use your HR and OD systems to put the weight of the organization behind your people so they have the wind in their sails. Your employees should not have to fight the system to do the right thing for your organization. Proactive culture management must be part of your regular strategic planning cycle (see my blog Making Strategy Stick).
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