Understanding Corporate Culture
by Debra Lea Thorsen
Culture: n 1. natural phenomenon that is created whenever a group of people come together to collaborate; 2. foundation for all decisions and actions within an organization; 3. the way things are around here.
Every time people come together with a shared purpose, culture is created. This group of people could be a family, neighborhood, project team, or company. Culture is automatically created out of the combined thoughts, energies, and attitudes of the people in the group.
I often compare culture to electricity. Culture is an energy force that becomes woven through the thinking, behavior, and identity of those within the group. Culture is powerful and invisible and its manifestations are far reaching. Culture determines a company's dress code, work environment, work hours, rules for getting ahead and getting promoted, how the business world is viewed, what is valued, who is valued, and much more.
Culture shows up in both visible and invisible ways. Some manifestations of this energy field called "culture" are easy to observe. You can see the dress code, work environment, perks, and titles in a company. This is the surface layer of culture. These are only some of the visible manifestations of a culture.
The far more powerful aspects of culture are invisible. The cultural core is composed of the beliefs, values, standards, paradigms, worldviews, moods, internal conversations, and private conversations of the people that are part of the group. This is the foundation for all actions and decisions within a team, department, or organization.
Visible Manifestations of Culture
- Dress Code
- Work Environment
- Work/Life Balance
- Titles & Job Descriptions
- Organizational Structure
Invisible Manifestations of Culture
- Private Conversations (with self or confidants)
- Invisible Rules
- Moods and Emotions
- Unconscious Interpretations
Business leaders often assume that their company's vision, values, and strategic priorities are synonymous with their company's culture. Unfortunately, too often, the vision, values, and strategic priorities may only be words hanging on a plaque on the wall.
In a thriving profitable company, employees will embody the values, vision, and strategic priorities of their company. What creates this embodiment (or lack of embodiment) is the culture that permeates the employees' psyches, bodies, conversations, and actions.
The energy fields that make up a group's culture are dynamic and change continuously. Culture is created and constantly reinforced on a daily basis through conversations, symbols, rituals, written materials, and body language. It is the small, mundane actions and behaviors that create a culture and can shift a culture.
Creating and sustaining a healthy, vibrant culture requires reinforcement of the culture through daily and proactive conversations and communications. The failure to discuss the values, purpose, and rules within a group often leads to a culture that is at cross purposes with the stated intention of the group. Poor communication creates a lot of confusion and often a crisis of meaninglessness.
Since a culture is created every time a group of people come together to form a team, a company will have many sub-cultures that exist within its main culture. For example, the marketing and technology teams may have different worldviews, jargon, work hours, and ways to do things. A big challenge for today's company is to create a strong, cohesive corporate culture that pulls all of the sub-cultures together and ensures that they can work as a unified team.
Most companies try to "fix" perceived problems by addressing the parts of the corporate culture that are easy to see. Some quick-fixes include holding Friday beer bashes and company picnics or adding fringe benefits and perks. None of these actions will have a powerful or lasting effect on a company's culture.
So, if the powerful part of culture is invisible, how can you affect it? Through conversation. Conversations have the power to make the invisible visible. Language is not merely descriptive, it is generative. Language and conversations have the power to generate a new, powerful future and to create a cultural energy field that will support and sustain this future.
The CEO and leadership team of a company have a powerful impact on culture through their conversations and behaviors. Business leaders can pro-actively create a thriving culture by understanding what culture is (and is not) and learning how to have fundamental business conversations.
Unfortunately, most business leaders receive little to no education on how to have powerful conversations that generate culture and actions. Culture building can be learned, but it takes an honest commitment from the leadership team of an organization.
About the Author
Find out how to successfully change your corporate culture. Debra Lea Thorsen helps companies optimize their corporate cultures.