organizational culture

Organizational Culture: 8 Tips To Build Awesome Cultures

What Is Organizational Culture?

Culture can be compared to the personality of an organization. Culture is directly linked with how things are done daily. It affects how employees perform their work and how they relate with each other, customers, and their managers.

Organizational culture affects not only task-level issues but also emotional issues. How the employees feel about their daily work and, in general, about the organization, they work for.

Senior executives and management consultants first adopted organizational culture in the 1980s as a quick fix for every organizational problem. Academics later adopted it as an explanatory framework to understand organisational behaviour.

Definitions of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture models?

Edgar Schein’s model

Edgar Schein’s model of culture is the most widely accepted and defines organizational culture in terms of three levels, each distinguished by its visibility and accessibility by individuals. The tree levels are:

1 – Surface manifestations of organizational culture, and this level refers to the visible things that a culture produces. It includes physical objects and behaviour patterns that can be seen, heard or felt. They all send a clear message to the organization’s employees, suppliers and customers.

  1. Artefacts are material objects created by human hands to facilitate culturally expressive activities.
  2. Ceremonials are formally planned, elaborate, dramatic sets of activities of cultural expression.
  3. Courses and workshops are used to instruct, orient and train new members in company practices.
  4. Heroes are living or dead characters who personify their values and beliefs. Who is referred to in company stories, legends, sagas, myths and jokes and who represents role models that current employees should emulate.
  5. Jokes are humorous stories intended to amuse, but their underlying themes carry a message for the behaviour or values expected of organizational members.
  6. Language is the form or manner in which members use vocal sounds and written signs to convey meaning to each other. It includes specialist technical vocabulary related to the business (jargon) and general naming choices.
  7. Legends are handed-down narratives about extraordinary events based on company history but embellished with fictional details. These fascinate employees and invite them to admire or deplore certain activities.
  8. Mottoes are maxims adopted as rules of conduct. Unlike slogans, mottoes are rarely, if ever, changed.
  9. Norms are expected modes of behaviour that are accepted as the company’s way of doing things, thereby guiding employee behaviour.
  10. Physical layout concerns things that surround people, providing them with immediate sensory stimuli as they carry out culturally expressive activities.
  11. Rites are elaborate, dramatic activities that consolidate various forms of cultural expression into one event. They are formally planned, though not necessarily always officially sanctioned.
  12. Sagas are historical narratives describing the unique accomplishments of a group and its leaders. They usually describe events that are said to have unfolded over time and constitute an essential part of an organization’s history.
  13. Slogans are short, catchy phrases that are regularly changed. They are used both for customer advertising and to motivate employees.
  14. Stories are short, catchy phrases that are regularly changed. They are used both for customer advertising and to motivate employees.
  15. Symbols refer to any act, event, object, quality, or relationship that serves as a vehicle for conveying meaning.

2 – Organizational values are the second level, and they represent

  • Something that is explicitly or implicitly desirable to an individual or group
  • Influence employees’ choice from available means and ends of action
  • Reflect their beliefs as to what is right and wrong, or specify their general preferences

3 – Basic assumptions are the last and most profound level of culture and are the most difficult to comprehend.

These are the set of shared but unspoken assumptions about the best way to do the things that need to be done in the company. Due to their invisible nature and being taken for granted, they are difficult to pin down1.

These assumptions start with the founder(s) thinking and then develop through the stages that the organization evolve. It is necessary mainly for leaders to actively ensure that these values are not lost with the growth and new members joining the organization.

Some of the values that would be common in any organization would be:

  • Stability
  • Quality
  • Economy
  • Excellence
  • Profitability
  • Predictability
  • Responsibility
  • Innovativeness
  • Morality

Types Of Organizational Culture

Why Is Organizational Culture Important?

In 2008, Ann Cunliffe stated that organizational culture is influential because it

  • shapes the image that the public has of an organization
  • influences organizational effectiveness
  • provides direction for the company
  • helps to attract, retain and motivate staff.

Strong vs weak culture?

Gordon and DiTomaso, in 1992, made the distinction between strong and weak organisational culture.

A strong culture, as defined by O’Reilly (1989), is a culture that has the following two items:

  • intensity – the organization members have a solid emotional attachment to the organisation’s core values. They are open to showing approval and disapproval to other colleges that act in a certain way.
  • sharedness – the majority of employees agree with those organizational values.

On the other hand, a weak culture is one where there isn’t an agreement among most employees about organizational values.

The more employees agree and follow the organization’s values, the stronger the organizational culture will be as the employees will have a stronger emotional attachment to those values and more they will “walk their talk”.

Most managerial literature assumes that strong cultures perform better than weak ones as they unite the employees and direct their attitudes and actions. Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, McDonald’s and Disney are great examples of organizations with strong cultures.

What Are The Key Elements Of A Strong Culture?

As Chris Grey (2009) pointed out, the shared values that most employees agree with and make the organization’s culture stronger should be values that contribute to the organisation’s success. Examples are values that increase productivity, reduce costs, increase company profits, improve customer service, and accelerate time to market and innovation. If most employees agree about shared values but don’t contribute positively to the organization, that will not create the right strong culture. More importantly, it will not create a successful organization.

5 Drivers For Creating A Strong Culture?

1. Committed leaders

The first key driver to building a strong culture is to have the CEO and key leaders committed throughout the organization to create the desired culture.

Multi-directional communication is essential for a strong culture, and leaders play a crucial role in encouraging communication across groups to share their experiences and feedback.

Another vital role of leaders is to empower employees to make crucial decisions and be creative in approaching their jobs.

2. Practiced core values

As discussed, having a well-defined set of core values agreed upon and followed by most employees is essential to building a strong culture.

Many organizations have core values but don’t get employees committed to them. They sound more like something you read in a press release or for day-one training for new joiners. In strong cultures, these core values are practised daily in every decision or interaction with a client.

3. Management practices aligned to support the culture

One generally accepted idea is that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers in the same way, which is an excellent driver to a successful organization.

Some examples of management practices that support a strong culture can be the examples in the following areas:

  • Work environment and recognition – creating a work environment where employees have fun, feel appreciated, can voice their concerns and have control to do their best work.
  • Office or remote environment – having an appropriate workspace in an office or home where employees can focus on and communicate effectively.
  • Perks – free and low prices perks that improve the mood, like free healthy food and beverages and a product discount program.
  • Personal Development – access to a career or life coach or mentors to support in defining personal and professional goals and the steps to archive them.

4. HR practices aligned to support the culture

HR practices play a crucial role in creating a strong culture, starting by ensuring the correct process to hire the right people, onboarding them with the proper training to set them up for success and supporting the organization’s culture and supporting to get meaningful feedback and praise for the performance.

Some of the most critical HR areas are:

  • Recruitment – Candidates should be carefully screened for fit: (1) job/technical competencies; (2) the team or department; and (3) the culture.
  • Selection of employees – Candidates at all levels are interviewed at multiple levels, with potential co-workers often making the final decision. Candidates that are highly talented but don’t fit the culture should not be hired.
  • Orientation for new employees – New employees, should undergo an intensive orientation program that includes training in the company culture.
  • Training & Pay – Ongoing training and certifications should be encouraged and should result in base pay increases and promotions.
  • Performance evaluation – Performance should be measured in many situations about outcomes, not productivity. Extensive 360-degree Feedback obtained by coworkers and customers is an excellent way to evaluate performance.
  • Benefits – The company should offer a comprehensive health and wellness benefits package.

5. Customer-focused strategy

There are a lot of examples of large organizations that have customer-focused strategies. Amazon and Virgin are examples that are very open to say that they are customer-focused, and that is accepted by many as one of the reasons they are so successful.

Customer-focused organizations have values in their culture like:

  • Customer service should be a priority for everyone in the organization.
  • Enable Service Reps to solve customer issues without involving a supervisor.
  • Don’t be afraid of not keeping customers that are overly demanding or disrespectful to employees.
  • See customer service as an investment, not a cost.
  • Reinforce the culture by sharing and praising great service stories.

8 Lessons Learned For Building Strong Cultures

There are outstanding examples of strong cultures with particularities that might be unique for that organization and, therefore, not replicable. Still, we can extract underlying themes of those lessons that ultimately require substantive, thoughtful, and intentional actions that align with a set of values.

1. It starts with committed and united leaders at all levels to build and maintain a strong culture

A strong culture with a deliberate set of parameters and is not left to what mix the employees bring to the organization needs a firm commitment from all leaders, particularly senior leaders, to build that culture.

2. Culture needs to be defined, aligned with strategy, and practised daily

Culture can be defined or be left to chance. If the objective is purposely building a culture, it needs to be well-defined by core values or by identifying cultural ideals. It is also crucial for the culture to be aligned with the organization’s strategy, as that will simplify the decision-making process for getting things done.

3. It takes well-designed and sustained actions to build, change, and sustain a thriving culture purposely

A strong and healthy organisational culture must be designed with specific drivers to build and sustain it. Leaders must also align everything, such as decisions, policies, systems, and structures, to support the culture and be consistent.

This means that leaders must take time to know the culture well, carefully plan actions to build and maintain it, and involve employees appropriately in the process, especially when making changes. These efforts take time, resources and a strong belief in the importance of culture.

4. Hire and train for culture from top to bottom

Hiring the right people for a particular culture and senior leadership is crucial. This requires a well-defined and thorough recruitment, selection, orientation and training process. The long-term benefits are well worth the effort, as new employees are less likely to deviate from the culture that is defined. Productivity and consistency will be present early on, and turnover is likely much lower than averages.

5. Develop a process for monitoring, improving, and sustaining the culture

Collecting feedback about the organization’s culture over time is imperative to identify deviations. Even the best leaders can get disconnected from how employees and customers perceive the culture if they don’t have ways to keep in touch with what is happening. Thus planned ways to survey or receive feedback from employees, customers, suppliers, and other key stakeholders and involve them to improve and sustain the culture is critical.

6. It pays to build healthy cultures and costs when you don’t

It’s well documented the payoffs of building healthy cultures. The most compelling advantage is a competitive advantage that it can potentially provide.

Jay Barney said that culture could create a sustained competitive advantage when the following conditions are met: (1) it is valuable (it contributes in some way to efficiency and effectiveness), (2) it is rare; and (3) it isn’t easy to imitate.

Additionally, leaders should reflect on the high costs of not building a healthy culture. Internally, performance, morale, teamwork, and the ability to attract and retain employees are all likely to suffer. Externally, an unhealthy culture can affect sales, service, and customer loyalty, affecting the organization’s success.

7. Pay attention to and manage potential cultural threats

Leaders must be proactive in identifying potential cultural threads and develop plans for managing them before they happen.

It is always possible to have unanticipated circumstances and events taking place,s such as budget cuts, rapid market changes, economic downturns, natural disasters, and changes in ownership or leadership that can change cultures if they are not effectively managed.

When these threads occur, leaders need to involve and engage the appropriate people in finding ways to mitigate the possible threads or even use the thread to rally people together to strengthen the culture or make needed changes.

8. Educate boards on the importance of culture

Being typically responsible for hiring CEOs is crucial to educate boards to hire suitable profiles for the organisation’s culture. Boards can damage or destroy a strong culture with one decision. Hiring the wrong CEO who doesn’t fit the existing organisational culture or doesn’t understand the importance of building a strong culture.

There are scenarios where a change in the organization’s culture is required, and those are even more critical for the board to understand the importance of culture and how to change it. Their decision and the process of the new CEO to change the culture could be critical to the organisation’s future success.

Further Reading

Organizational Culture

The 3 fundamental leadership styles. Examples and when to apply each style.

7 simple tips to master dealing with conflict

  1. Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant

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