What is Culture?

Written by Jamie Notter on February 26, 2016

One of the main sources of resistance that I get against a more disciplined approach to organizational culture is that it is hard to define. It’s vague. It’s squishy. It’s complex. It means different things to different people.

Okay, but that doesn’t actually mean it’s hard to define. Yes, it’s complex, but here’s what I have found to be a pretty clear definition:

Culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and tangible “stuff” that clarify and reinforce what is truly valued inside an organization.

That’s what your culture is. Obviously it has several components. The first three—words, actions, and thoughts—represent the human side of where your culture comes from. It’s how your people talk, it’s what they do, and it’s even how they think. The tangible “stuff” refers to things like dress code, office design, and even where you hold your annual meeting. I’ll be writing several posts about tangible culture later, actually.

But for now, let’s focus on words. A big part of your culture is the words you use to describe it. Human beings understand the world through stories, so you’ve got a story you tell about who you are and what it’s like to work there. Certainly when a candidate shows up for an interview, you’ll tell that story. But it also exists in your strategic planning documents, your mission statement, your core values (if you have them), and even your policy documents. All those sources have important implications on what is valued internally, and that’s the heart of the culture.

So does part of your association’s story include being “member focused” or “member driven?” Great. So do all those internal documents truly reflect that? You may not realize that the words in your strategic plan or your policy documents are basically instructing your staff to value other things significantly more than they should value the members. And to be honest, those other documents might be right. You’ll have to figure that out, but either way you need to make sure you’re consistent when it comes to being clear about what is valued.

And, of course, the next piece—actions—also plays into the mix. As they say, actions speak louder than words, so let’s say that your culture values people taking initiative, making their own decisions, and really being able to “own” their jobs. Sounds good, doesn’t it? So think about how you would react when you as a leader go to your direct reports to ask them about a project, and they tell you that it’s already been shipped out. It’s live on the web site. It’s already gone out in an email to ALL the members.

Do you react with concern? “Hey, did someone approve that before it went out?” “Can I get a chance to make sure the language is okay?” If you react that way, you are making it clear that you DON’T value initiative and owning their jobs. You value a hierarchy that approves things. And no matter how many posters you have on the wall declaring your love of taking initiative, your people will certainly remember your reaction to that project release much more clearly, and the next time a project needs to go out, it will be stuck in your inbox waiting for approval.

That’s how culture works. You make clear what is valued (sometimes unintentionally!), and that drives behavior.

That’s why you need to be much more serious about your culture, because it is probably driving behavior in ways that you don’t even realize. The more you can align your culture with the behaviors that drive your success, the better off you’ll be. And that’s the topic for my next post.