How to Uncover Your Organizational Culture

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Last week’s article described how to use the hiring process as a method to transform your culture from where it is today to where you need it to be.  I received a great question from a reader that I’ve been asked from time-to-time:

How do you determine what your current culture is?

Culture is the secret sauce of an organization.  It can separate an average company from a great one.

Whether you are the owner or a company or another member of the team, having a deep understanding of your culture and its importance will drive your personal success as well as the organizations.

What is Culture?

Before we talk about how to uncover your current culture, let’s take a quick detour to define what culture is.

Many people intuitively understand what it is, but struggle to put it into words.  The simplest definition I’ve ever heard is that culture is how things get done in an organization.

All organizations are in place to deliver something of value. They may sell a product, provide a service, insure against risk, advocate for an industry, etc.   That’s what they do.

Culture is how they do it.  Not the procedures or process used to do the what, but rather the way people interact with each other, their customers, and the work itself.

There are a variety of features of culture.  Looking at these gives a clearer image of what culture is all about.  Some examples include:

  • how information is communicated throughout the organization how much autonomy people are given
  • how much autonomy people are given
  • how individual or team focused people are
  • how much innovation is valued
  • how much risk taking is acceptable
  • etc.

Culture is typically created by default rather than intention.  It simply evolves over time. But the good news is that it is not fixed or set in stone.

A growing number of companies are realizing how important culture is and are finding ways to transform a culture that doesn’t serve the organization.

Other savvy business owners are starting their businesses with an eye on culture, which saves lots of heartache down the road.

Why is Culture Important?

The answer is simple – culture is a differentiator.

There are other organizations that do either exactly what yours does or provides the same value that you do in a different way.  But your culture is unique.

Culture is one of the few things, along with your team, that competitors will never be able to replicate.

Being that it is a differentiator, culture may need to be modified as the strategy shifts over time to improve the performance of an organization.  To make that change, you must know what your culture is today.

Methods for Discovering Your Culture

Identifying your culture sounds easy enough, but when you are part of the culture, it can be hard to see.  Below are three categories of methods for identifying your culture.

They are not mutually exclusive, but rather the more techniques you use, the more reliable your appraisal will be!

  1. Personal Assessment: Although challenging, you can try your best to put yourself in a neutral mindset and analyze the culture yourself.  This is the fastest, least expensive option, but it’s also the least accurate one given the limitations of a single, internal perspective.
  2. Team Assessment: Hold facilitated discussions with team members.  Or you could have them complete a survey.  Survey questions can be developed by you or you can purchase an already developed culture survey.
  3. Neutral Party Assessment: Because you and your team are inside the organization, you have biases and assumptions about how work gets done that you cannot see.  Although the costliest option, it’s an investment in the future of the organization. The benefit of having an external expert conduct an assessment is that it will provide the most untainted and therefore most accurate picture of your culture.

What to Look For

Regardless of the method you use, you need to know what to look for.  The place to find clues to your culture are all around you.   By identifying patterns in what you see, you will be led to a description of your culture.

Culture has been likened to an iceberg.  There are behaviors, signs, and indicators that you see (the part of the iceberg that’s above water), and values, beliefs, and other driving forces behind what you see (the larger part of the iceberg that is below the surface of the water.)

Edgar Schein of the Sloan School of Management divided organizational culture into three levels: artifacts, values, and assumptions.

  1. Artifacts: These are the things that are out in the open and visible.  For example, how people dress, the office layout, who parks where, the tone of email communications, the amount and type of interactions between people, etc.
  2. Espoused Values: The articulated set of values and norms. Frequently, these are seen in publicly displayed values statements, but can also be found in a leader’s common expressions. It’s important to verify whether these stated standards are what is practiced and demonstrated in the artifacts as well as whether they are aligned with the shared basic assumptions as described below.
  3. Shared basic assumptions: Beliefs and behaviors so rooted in the organization that most people inside don’t notice them.  It’s what’s behind the artifacts and espoused values.

Take Action

If an organization isn’t operating at the desired level, a cultural change is often required to create the deep transformation necessary to turn an organization in a new direction. To change the culture, you need an accurate picture of what it is now.

Begin today to see through the culture lens by trying the following.

Observe the artifacts at restaurants and stores you visit.  Gather the pieces of data together and come up with a few statements that describe what you believe is the culture of that business.

Again, it’s easier to identify a culture when you’re not a part of it, so use this simple exercise to develop your culture eye before you try it inside your own organization.

It’s Your Turn

What observable signs of organizational culture, yours or another company, pop into mind when you think about cultural artifacts?

You can leave your answer in a comment below.

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