There seems to be a consistent argument about where organisational culture comes from and who’s to blame when it isn’t good. There is a popularist view that culture is shaped mostly or only by the team (or a few troublemakers on it), and therefore company culture should be the primary consideration in making employment decisions. Whilst of course I would agree that cultural compatibility is an essential and still often overlooked consideration in those judgements, the concept is so commonly misunderstood by recruiters and employers that “cultural fit” has often become a justification for using gut-feeling or personal taste – in other words, a way of making an otherwise unjustifiable decision based on personal preferences, insecurities or prejudice.
So, what is company culture? At its heart, organisational culture is shaped by the perceived thinking, feelings, attitudes and decision-making patterns shared by an influential group of people. It is communicated by behaviours, actions, storytelling and symbols, and then perceived and translated subjectively within a context of personal, organisational, social and other factors. Even though organisationalculture may be based around one person, it can only live through group-think which must be based around commonly-held beliefs and values. There must be a resonance throughout the organisation.
The power of organisational culture is that it is based around some things that can be explained (such as what is rewarded, celebrated and respected) as well as being around beliefs and behavioural patterns that are intrinsic to the people involved. Company culture reflects and enforces the social norms and performance standards of the business in much stronger ways than policies, processes or KPIs. Because it connects with people at an emotional level, there is an opportunity to help shape not only the things we see such as behaviour, presentation, effort, and attitude, but also things we don’t such as core feelings and intrinsic motivation. In coming to grips with culture, this concept of only partially understood elements for both the influencers and the influenced is an important element to keep in mind.
Some of the fundamental elements of organisational culture include:
The values, prejudices, social systems and artefacts we grew up with that form our fundamental beliefs of identity, and sense of right and wrong;
Perceptions of the nature of human nature;
How we value society and human relationships on their many levels of association and disassociation;
The characteristics and self-image we have, value and aspire to;
The relationship we feel with our physical and natural environments;
The place and role of faith and fact;
and so on, in different ways and to different levels for all of us.
Not only is it hard for us to objectively view these things in ourselves, in others we can only guess at them through appearances, words and behaviours – and our brains almost unconsciously make assumptions to fill in the gaps to satisfy our need for sense-making. Psychometrically we can test for some of them, but we need to keep in mind that the value of the test is limited by perceptions and misperceptions of the questions or understandings of the evaluator, which, as we have established, cannot be completely accurate. There is also the possibility that those being tested may be influenced by a specific event or may have an understanding of the testing process, or indeed that the recruiter is inconsistent or unsure in what they believe they are looking at or for. Testing is evidentially more reliable than gut feel (or a complement for it), but not a guarantee of creating a great company culture purely through recruitment, as some would have you believe.
Which brings us back to the original point: whilst organisational culture is influenced by those who are brought onto the team, it is set and sustained by leaders first, and then followers second. It is the responsibility of the leadership team, and usually by the founders before them, to decide what cultural style and cues are the best fit for their own values and the purpose and goals of the organisation. It is also true that a multitude of cultures will co-exist in any organisation, but it is in the absence of leadership, or in a lack of intrinsic connection between the organisation’s culture and the values of those in it, that these other counter-cultures are likely to dominate. Simply, a leadership vacuum will not remain unfilled and people will not buy into something that goes against their fundamental beliefs.
Company culture is part of branding, not only in recruitment, but in connecting with why customers would want to identify and do business with the organisation, making it intrinsic to the organisation’s long-term competitive position and financial success. Organisational culture shapes how people think and work and how managers lead, support, reward and discipline their teams. It shapes risk, compliance, customer relationships, engagement, discretional effort, how people dress and how they interact. And these things comes from the top down – it is for leadership to set an authentic example that others willingly choose to buy into, and then support it through consistent management practices.
So, whilst a great company culture is practiced, lived and advocated by the whole team, defining the behaviours and actions that define an organisation’s cultural norms is a strategic decision, while hiring for it, implementing and supporting it is a daily management activity. This is why, as with any other organisational performance issue, company culture is a reflection of leadership and management practice.
So if yours isn’t great, maybe you’re right to start by looking at the team – the leadership team.
If the idea of a high performing management team appeals to you, read more about Professional Self-Development, Training or Executive Coaching, or if you’d like to know more about Mars – The Ultimate Performance Management System, click here to learn more or here to take the free test. Alternatively, contact us directly to talk about how we might be able to help you.