Have you ever been to a coalition meeting where a newcomer asks a pointed question to the leader of the group, and everyone around the newcomer cringes while he stands oblivious to the battle he just instigated? Being an outsider can be uncomfortable, especially when you do not know the rules. These very rules, norms, and values – culture – tell us how to behave and inform us of what is acceptable. As culture guides the behavior of societies, it also shapes our interactions in the workplace. Organizational culture remains an under-utilized tool for managing the performance of others.

An organization’s culture serves multiple purposes. It can be a source of identity and pride, giving employees shared goals and a feeling of unity. Culture can also be used to select new hires and monitor the performance of others. When organizations share their workplace philosophies with prospective employees, they allow those applicants to self-select and therefore decide whether they will fit into the environment. As one example, Teach for America (TFA) values entrepreneurship and emphasizes this priority with employment candidates. The organization shares its philosophy in many ways, such as hosting annual social innovation awards that recognize individuals who “spark bold, new innovations that expand opportunities” for students. By publicly recognizing innovation, TFA communicates its own hopes – and expectations – for employees’ behavior. Less entrepreneurial candidates will be less likely to accept a position at TFA, if they understand that more is expected of them than they are willing or able to give. (For more information, feel free to read more about 4 Elements of an Entrepreneurial Culture) Sharing critical elements of organizational culture with potential hires, so they have the option of participating or not, is a great way to perpetuate the type of work environment the organization seeks.

Organizational culture can also help manage performance after employees are integrated in the workplace. The social norms of the organization constitute a powerful method to guide behavior in situations where performance is otherwise hard to quantify. In the coalition example above, the newcomer would realize how to act when either the leader reacted with chastisement or ostracism, or other members of the group clued him in as to what is acceptable. These repercussions inform the newcomer and reinforce to other group members which behavior is acceptable and which is not. This type of group monitoring or peer pressure is a strong force in encouraging employees to either comply or move on and can be used to facilitate teamwork, self-reliance, initiative, passivity, and a host of both positive and negative behaviors.

Psychologist Edgar Schein identified three levels of organizational culture. Take a look at your organization’s culture and tell us how its social norms reinforce the types of behaviors you desire (or not!) in your workplace:

  • Artifacts: What you see, including dress code (suits vs. jeans vs. gym clothes), rituals (awards for teamwork vs. no recognition), office layout (departments working in proximity vs. separated by different floors), as some examples
  • Values: Rules of behavior, philosophies (family orientation vs. first to arrive and last to leave)
  • Assumptions: Answers to why artifacts and behaviors are what they are

We encourage all of our clients to carefully consider culture as an important tool to advance organizational goals. Culture exists whether you work on it or not, so you might as well take the initiative and determine whether and how your culture will move your organization forward.

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