Culture: Your Environment for People at Work

What Is Organizational Culture?

Business people high fiving in office
Cultura RM/Matelly/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

People in every workplace talk about organizational culture, that mysterious word that characterizes the qualities of a work environment. One of the key questions and assessments, when employers interview a prospective employee, explores whether the candidate is a good cultural fit. Culture is difficult to define, but you generally know when you have found an employee who appears to fit your culture.

He just feels right.

Culture is the environment that surrounds you at work all of the time. Culture is a powerful element that shapes your work enjoyment, your work relationships, and your work processes. But, culture is something that you cannot actually see, except through its physical manifestations in your workplace.

In many ways, culture is like personality. In a person, the personality is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, interests, experiences, upbringing, and habits that create a person’s behavior.

Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people. Culture is the behavior that results when a group arrives at a set of - generally unspoken and unwritten - rules for working together.

An organization’s culture is made up of all of the life experiences each employee brings to the organization. Culture is especially influenced by the organization’s founder, executives, and other managerial staff because of their role in decision making and strategic direction.

Culture is represented in a group’s:

  • language,
  • decision making,
  • symbols,
  • stories and legends, and
  • daily work practices.

Something as simple as the objects chosen to grace a desk tells you a lot about how employees view and participate in your organization’s culture. Your bulletin board content, the company newsletter, the interaction of employees in meetings, and the way in which people collaborate, speak volumes about your organizational culture.

Central Concepts about Culture

Professors Ken Thompson (DePaul University) and Fred Luthans (University of Nebraska) highlight the following seven characteristics of culture through my interpretive lens.

  • Culture = Behavior. Culture is a word used to describe the behaviors that represent the general operating norms in your environment. Culture is not usually defined as good or bad, although aspects of your culture likely support your progress and success and other aspects impede your progress.

    A norm of accountability will help make your organization successful. A norm of spectacular customer service will sell your products and engage your employees. Tolerating poor performance or exhibiting a lack of discipline to maintain established processes and systems will impede your success.
  • Culture is Learned. People learn to perform certain behaviors through either the rewards or negative consequences that follow their behavior. When a behavior is rewarded, it is repeated and the association eventually becomes part of the culture. A simple thank you from an executive for work performed in a particular manner, molds the culture.
  • Culture is Learned Through Interaction. Employees learn culture by interacting with other employees. Most behaviors and rewards in organizations involve other employees. An applicant experiences a sense of your culture, and his or her fit within your culture, during the interview process. An initial opinion of your culture can be formed as early as the first phone call from the Human Resources department.

    The culture that a new employee experiences and learns can be consciously shaped by managers, executives, and co-workers. Through your conversations with the new employee, you can communicate the elements of the culture you'd like to see continued.

    If this interaction doesn't take place, the new employee forms his or her own idea of the culture, often in interaction with other new employees. This fails to serve the continuity a consciously created culture requires.
  • Sub-cultures Form Through Rewards. Employees have many different wants and needs. Sometimes employees value rewards that are not associated with the behaviors desired by managers for the overall company. This is often how subcultures are formed, as people get social rewards from coworkers or have their most important needs met in their departments or project teams.

Find more information about organizational culture and its key characteristics.

  • People Shape the Culture. Personalities and experiences of employees create the culture of an organization. For example, if most of the people in an organization are very outgoing, the culture is likely to be open and sociable. If many artifacts depicting the company’s history and values are in evidence throughout the company, people value their history and culture.

    If doors are open, and few closed door meetings are held, the culture is unguarded. If negativity about supervision and the company is widespread and complained about by employees, a culture of negativity, that is difficult to overcome, will take hold.

    New employees need to meet the appropriate people who are setting the expectations for the company's culture. Through stories and discussion, each new employee needs to learn the company history, the mission and vision, the desired culture, and the types of actions that are expected and that will be rewarded and recognized.

    If these critical components of the organization's culture are not communicated, the new employee forms his or her own version of the culture. This may or may not be congruent with the culture you desire.
  • Culture is Negotiated. One person cannot create a culture alone. Employees must try to change the direction, the work environment, the way work is performed, or the manner in which decisions are made within the general norms of the workplace. Culture change is a process of giving and taking by all members of an organization. Formalizing strategic direction, systems development, and establishing measurements must be owned by the group responsible for them. Otherwise, employees will not own them.
  • Culture is Difficult to Change. Culture change requires people to change their behaviors. It is often difficult for people to unlearn their old way of doing things, and to start performing the new behaviors consistently. Persistence, discipline, employee involvement, kindness and understanding, organization development work, and training can assist you to change a culture.

More Characteristics of Culture

Your work culture is often interpreted differently by diverse employees. Other events in people’s lives affect how they act and interact at work too.

Although an organization has a common culture, each person may see that culture from a different perspective. Additionally, your employees’ individual work experiences, departments, and teams may view the culture differently.

You can mitigate the natural tendency of employees to optimize the components of the culture that serve their needs by teaching the culture you desire.

Frequent reinforcement of the desired culture communicates the aspects of your work environment you most want to see repeated and rewarded.

Trust me, employees don't just get it.

They will get part of it or a skewed version of it that suits their needs. To reinforce what you'd like to see, culture must be carefully taught and modeled.

Your culture may be strong or weak. When your work culture is strong, most people in the group agree on the culture. When your work culture is weak, people do not agree on the culture. Sometimes a weak organizational culture can be the result of many subcultures, or the shared values, assumptions, and behaviors of a subset of the organization.

For example, the culture of your company as a whole might be weak and very difficult to characterize because there are so many subcultures. Each department or work cell may have its own culture. Within departments, the staff and managers may each have their own culture.

Ideally, organizational culture supports a positive, productive, environment. Happy employees are not necessarily productive employees. Productive employees are not necessarily happy employees. It is important to find aspects of the culture that will support each of these qualities for your employees.

Now that you are familiar with this visualization of organizational culture, you will want to explore additional aspects of organizational culture and cultural change. In this way, the concept of culture will become useful to the success and profitability of your organization.

Find more information about organizational culture and its key characteristics.

More About Organizational Culture and Culture Change

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