One of the main sources of resistance 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.
While it is complex, 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 IN 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.
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. Each one has an important implication on what is valued internally, and that’s the heart of organizational culture.
Does part of your association’s story include being “member-focused” or “member-driven?” Great. But do all your internal documents truly reflect that? You may not realize 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 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 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 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; 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 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.