Organizational Culture



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What Is Culture?

Culture is the feel and vibe of everything that is the environment. It is the expression of assumptions, values, and beliefs that parties bring to a group. What happens consistently becomes your culture.

Culture happens where there are people – it is all about relationships. That is why shaping culture requires understanding people and wanting what is best for those people.

Culture is important as it shapes people and their experience. It is the basis for success of the organization. And it will decline in health if not intentionally and consistently kept healthy.

Culture comes from the word cultivation. Cultivation, in turn, is slow healthy growth resulting in a fruitful harvest. You are the gardener of your culture.

Who Is Responsible for the Culture?

The leader has the final say and responsibility on what the culture of an organisation looks like. Nothing happens unless the leaders see a need for change and want the change themself.

If you are not the leader, you cannot determine what the culture is upwards, but you can determine what it is downwards: you have the responsibility to shape the culture below you to what you feel is healthy. In other words, everyone is part of a culture; therefore, everyone can affect it.

The leaders need to be self-aware so that they can see the impact they are having on others. One way to advance the discipline of self-awareness is to ensure taking time to reflect. For example, taking 15 minutes each day to reflect on what happened in the previous day, how you reacted to it and why you reacted in the way you did.

Changing and Maintaining Culture

How to Identify What the Culture Is?

Changing culture requires you to be able to identify what the current culture is. That means asking questions like listed below:

  • How do people behave?
  • How do people interact with each other?
  • What are the stories people recall, good and bad?
  • What are the justifications behind decisions made?
  • What are the consequences of decisions made?
  • What is the feel of the organisation?

How Is Culture Formed?

Healthy culture does not happen by accident. Culture is formed not only by the actions you take but also the actions you do not take.

Avoidance can sabotage the culture – what you avoid is the very thing that will grow more powerful the longer you avoid it. For example, if you avoid addressing toxic behaviour, it will gradually take over and become the culture.

The leader of a team who is good at keeping others accountable creates a culture of accountability. This is not achieved by being angry, demanding or demeaning, but acting gently and with a smile.

And this, in turn, is much easier if you do not let things to escalate. In addition, a strong and healthy culture regulates itself with a communal set of values which holds everyone to account.

A culture is formed by the coming together of two or more people – this means it is essential in the early stages of cultural development to have the right people in the mix.

To change the culture, you need to be clear on the culture you want, what a positive culture looks like. When the goal is clear, culture is shaped by identifying what your values need to be, developing them and getting everyone to own them.

Important Keys to Driving Cultural Change

Below you can see important keys to driving cultural change:

  • Create a vision and strategy. Investigate what needs to change about the culture and then create a vision and strategy. A good vision and strategy are understandable, functional, and actionable. Make sure you do the groundwork and research properly.
  • Keep focus. Wholesale change is hard so choose your battles wisely. You can for example concentrate on a few critical shifts in behaviour.
  • Identify influencers. Identify influencers who can bring other employees along. These are the people who you need to involve from an early phase and ensure they have a say in the vision and strategy – ensure they are clear about everything and have bought into the desired culture.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Through teaching and training, communicate the vision and strategy clearly, explaining the attributes of the culture and the acceptable behaviour in the new culture. Be clear about why the change needs to happen and honour the strengths of the existing culture. Going forward, communicate repeatedly – however many times you speak about the new culture, some team member will be hearing and understanding it for the first time.
  • Build supportive structures. The environment – for example decision-making principles, organization structures, reporting models, metrics, etc. – must enable people to work towards the strategic goal.
  • Ensure right capabilities and competences. What are the capabilities and competences of the people to take the strategy forward in an iterative, experimental, and learning-based way? For example, technical skills, process skills, team working, leadership, co-creation, etc.
  • Leadership example. The leaders must embody the new culture in their actions, words, and behaviours. Anything less will be perceived as hypocrisy.
  • Involve the individual. Involve the employees, encouraging their new ideas and putting them into practice.
  • Spearheads and pilots. Experiment in a smaller sample, learn from that, and iterate. Launch and oversee strategic new initiatives that demonstrate how the new culture, structures, and strategy work in practice. Remember that failure is an inherent part in taking risks.
  • Scale up and organise change. Leverage the successes from your spearheads, gather learnings about all the changes, and to plan the next cycle. Now the change initiatives turn into a proper change programme.
  • Share success stories. Recognize the wins and celebrate them publicly.
  • Accountability. Keep people accountable. Identify what is toxic and get rid of it. Do not procrastinate but take action when necessary.
  • Measure, monitor, and follow-up. Measure and monitor cultural evolution, and continue with relentless and ongoing follow-up, support and encouragement. Walk around, clarify, and confirm with employees their understanding of the new cultural mindset. Build relationships.
  • Patience and persistence. Changing the culture does not happen overnight. Patience and persistence are necessary for continuing down the path that might take years.

Changing the Culture Slowly vs. Quickly

Slow incremental change is a powerful tool as most effective cultural shift happens this way.

Culture can also be changed suddenly and significantly. However, there is a significant risk involved. There are factors you need to understand to change culture suddenly and significantly. For example, the timing must be right, and you need to calm your doubts – people will question your decision.

Counter-Cultural Movements

Culture helps people belong – a healthy culture has the power to not only draw people in but also win them to your vision and beliefs. When people do not agree with the culture, they will rebel against it and recruit others to join them.

However, even if this might feel threatening, be careful how much energy you will use trying to convince them to re-adopt your culture. Instead focus on strengthening a healthy culture. Rebellers can choose to adapt or leave.

Maintaining Culture

Completely changing a culture can take years, depending on how you measure it. While change is taking place, you need to continue doing things serving your leadership like:

  • Make sure your motives and cultural direction are aligned with your moral compass and the organisation’s values.
  • Continue communicating – make sure people understand what a healthy culture means in practice, and what is unacceptable.
  • Continue measuring and monitoring.
  • Constantly point people to what is possible in a healthy culture.
  • Always seek to get more people around the idea of culture than you currently have.

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  1. Mayhew, Ralph (2016). How To Create The Organizational Culture You Want: Leading Cultural Change in Business, Church and the Social Sector.
  2. Katzenbach, Jon R.; Steffen, Ilona; Kronley, Caroline (2012). Harvard Business Review (Magazine July–August 2012). Cultural Change That Sticks. Retrieved 8 January 2021.
  3. Sarvas, Risto and Loikala, Sami. BearingPoint. Six Foundation Stones for Cultural Transformation. Retrieved 8 January 2021.
  4. Shedd, David (2011). Wharton Magazine (July 5, 2011). 9 Keys to Driving Cultural Change. Retrieved 8 January 2021.