Jeremy Bradley-Silverio Donato, COO at Zama.
The term “culture” is often used as a Band-Aid for a company’s problems. If there is a drop in workplace morale, it must be a problem with the culture; if performance goes up, it’s because of the culture; if sales increase, it is also because of the culture. Or so goes the general thought.
Too often I see leaders use organizational culture as a slogan and umbrella term to describe all kinds of business practices. I believe this is an overly simplistic understanding of organizational culture.
Culture has been referred to as the “software of the mind,” which is the idea that a company’s culture is the set of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that define patterns and expectations. You do X and you get Y, which in turn creates a sense of identity or social glue. While this definition of organizational culture is sufficient to quickly identify or describe phenomena within a company’s lifecycle, it leaves much to be desired when it comes to examining the artifacts and assumptions underlying why a particular corporate culture originated. Was the culture a conscious choice by the management? If not, can the culture really adapt to changing circumstances?
Organizational culture: the three levels according to Edgar Schein
To get us to think more deeply about culture as something that underpins what an organization is all about, rather than simply explaining what the organization does, Edgar Schein of the Sloan School of Management described culture as having three levels.
The former exists on a level that is visible but sometimes indecipherable. Schein calls these the artifacts that an organization owns. Think of everything from office layout to furniture, logo placement on walls, or the way people dress and talk to each other. All of these are easy to perceive, but they can be hard to grasp if we never think of culture as something deeper than this.
For example, the lobby of my company’s Paris lobby has a huge logo on the wall near the entrance, as if to announce, “This is a new and different environment than the one you just left.” But in my private office things are more subtle; the lighting is dimmed, green plants surround plush chairs, and there are curtains to soften the harsh window light. I created this environment so that people feel more comfortable in the space, an element of culture that lends itself to open communication.
Going further, Schein says that organizations are often more aware of their values, even if those values are not articulated. Values influence how the people within an organization interact with each other and how they represent the organization both internally and externally. In addition to the values the company puts on its website or propagates in rehearsed speeches, core values are often reflected in the way people talk about the company at the water cooler or in the cafeteria.
The general mood of a company says a lot about how the organization is performing. Leaders should also be aware when their internal values do not match the externally published values. If a company’s mission is to protect privacy, but its internal IT systems are a mess, then there’s a deeper cultural problem at play. In this sense, leaders are the storytellers of culture and how they act and perform within the work environment helps reinforce core value propositions.
Finally, Schein talks about assumptions that are invisible and self-evident within the organization. These are the beliefs about a company that are so deeply entrenched that they are often not even talked about. To see the discrepancy between assumptions like lived experience and values embraced, look no further than the recent failures of major banks and crypto. All of these organizations had published sets of values that supposedly supported their business strategy, but each of them contained numerous individuals operating at the assumption level, “This is how we do things here.” The problem with such an approach is that there is little room for control, improvement or innovation.
Going beyond the simplistic: recognizing subcultures
Returning to our original question, and taking into account Schein’s insights, how can leaders go beyond a simplistic understanding of organizational culture?
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that subcultures exist within cultures. Every company will have subcultures of people with similar views or work patterns, people who have been there for a long time, people who consider themselves outsiders, and so on. Sometimes addressing the needs of these interest groups can be just as important when working on the bigger piece of organizational culture.
Culture is additive. So managing culture is a responsibility of all managers at every level of an organization, and consistency in messaging is key to reinforcing the culture leaders want to see.