Have you ever been to a coalition or staff meeting where a newcomer asked a pointed question to the leader of the group, and everyone around the newcomer cringed while s/he was oblivious to the battle just instigated? Being an outsider or a newcomer to a group 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. Just as culture guides the behavior of societies, it also shapes our interactions in the workplace and the community. Because it is the foundation of so many of our professional behaviors, culture often resides beneath the surface – like the iceberg concept we shared in our mindset post.

As a result, culture remains an underutilized tool for managing the performance of others. It is one of the reasons why Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is true within organizations, within collaborations and within relationships. Culture serves multiple purposes. It can be a source of identity and pride, giving individuals shared goals and a feeling of unity. My favorite definition of culture is from Debra Thorsen: “Culture is an energy force that becomes woven through the thinking, behavior and identity of those within the group.” It is not your vision, mission statement or your core values on paper; it is how your vision, mission statement and values play out in your workplace. Psychologist Edgar Schein identified three levels of culture. Consider how your culture reinforces 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)

Values: What you do, including rules of behavior (when problems occur, do you meet them head-on vs. ignore them), philosophies (decisions made top-down vs. consensus-driven)

Assumptions: What is implied, which is often the source of values in a culture and what causes action (or inaction) within an organization; assumptions are often unconsciously understood and rarely discussed

For organizations, 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 about entrepreneurial culture, check out our post 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 first example, the newcomer would realize how to act when either the leader reacted with chastisement or openness, or perhaps when other members of the group clued them into 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.
At Social Impact Architects, when we start working with a group of organizations involved in a collaboration, we often find that cultural norms (e.g., shared ways of working, shared goals, shared view of success) have not been shared or agreed upon. This often leads to miscommunication. Because each individual is coming from his or her own organization with its own culture, it is important for everyone to participate in setting the norms for working together and recognizing how their organization’s culture may or may not support the work. For example, quick decision-making may not be as easy for large organizations as it is for small ones. Small organizations may struggle with the time commitment needs of a collaboration, because employees are often wearing many hats. Acknowledging these issues upfront makes the work and interactions much more productive.
We encourage all of our clients to consider culture as an important tool to advance organizational and collaboration goals. We agree with Peter Drucker – we can give most organizations a great strategy, but we cannot give them a great culture. To that end, culture should be included in your strategy planning efforts – just like strategy based on your unique value proposition – and be monitored on a regular basis to align with your 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 to the next level. We would love to hear how aspects of your organization’s culture contribute to productivity or how you have established a common understanding of culture in your collaborative work.

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