What is This Thing Called Culture?

Culture influences everything we do and think within the organization. It extends out to the farthest reaches of the organization surmounting geographic and social barriers, and it is amazingly resistant to change. Culture is the social container in which everything in an organization takes place. Ignore it at your own risk!

Why is culture so pervasive and so strong?

As with societal culture it’s the job of organizational culture to make sure that nothing in the system gets so out of balance that it becomes unstable, unpredictable or threatens the survival of the group/organization as a whole. If culture had a motto it would be, “Better safe than sorry”. Its core unifying principle is based on values, and the enforcer of this stability is the norms, i.e., acceptable behavior.

It’s also the job of culture to make sure that important survival and success-based knowledge survives and is passed on. A lot of this knowledge has to do with skills, but more importantly and subtly it deals with the transmission of the group’s values and norms, assumptions and beliefs. Thus, we can say that the purpose of culture is to maintain order and the status quo, and to contain and transmit the sum of organizational experience and knowledge to ensure continuity.

The Visible Life

Look at an organization. What do you see? You’ll likely see goods and services, employees and customers, sales materials, business strategies and plans. You could see a building, a web site and some other tangible artifacts.

But, try to gaze into the mire we call culture, and the first thing you’ll see is that you can’t see much.

But keep looking, and some things will phase into view. You might notice a mission or vision statement written somewhere. You might observe that people tend to dress in a certain way or that the building has a particular layout or decor. You’ll probably notice there are stated rules and behavioral norms that people are expected to follow. There are espoused values, i.e., what we say matters, in place to guide…well, everything. If you listen hard you might hear some stories about the deeds and exploits of prominent people in the company that are designed to drive home those rules, standards, norms and values.

One thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s an awful lot of measuring going on: just about anything that can be measured is measured, and all these measured things are used to design strategies and make plans. This is the visible organization. We put our energy here because it’s what we can “see”!

The Hidden Life

Imagine an old-fashioned wall clock. What do you see? A case, face, numbers and hands. The hands do the work of telling us the time. But the more complicated and vital part of the clock lies hidden behind the face. Likewise, in an organization, you can’t see the vital working parts. You won’t see unexpressed shared meaning, thoughts or feelings of employees, or their real shared assumptions. You won’t see the hidden values and rules that govern behavior.

The hidden aspects of an organization are important: it’s here that, for better or for worse, the full power of the people in the organizations is contained. In the hidden life, if you looked with an anthropologist’s eye, you would be able to see what the organization really values, often different from what the organization says it values. You’d also see that there are norms for behavior that aren’t discussed in the employee manuals, and motivators and demotivators that aren’t discussed payroll. If you have a subtle ear, you might be able to pick up the shared but unexpressed.

Success and failure happen on the level of the hidden life. When we understand this we can see why change in organizations is so difficult to bring about.

TAGS: Organizational Cultural Anthropology