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How to Assess and Define Your Culture

AAR meetingWe have all read about the importance of culture and the connection to performance, both individual and company-wide. Having a culture that truly brings out the best in our employees, one where they are motivated, challenged, and committed to the organization and its customers, is something I am confident we all strive to attain.

The challenge is that culture is harder to define and quantify than most other aspects of our organizations. Quantifying culture isn't as straightforward as measuring customer satisfaction scores or tracking budgets, yet it is critical that we get our arms around what our culture is, or at least what we want it to be, because our culture determines our employees' happiness and productivity.

First, I want to be clear. No magic pixie dust will suddenly provide you with employees who love everything they do or an unlimited budget for culture initiatives. However, with a proper framework, you can strengthen your culture regardless of circumstances or resources.

What is this thing we refer to as "culture"?

Is culture tangible and definable? Can we see it? Recognize it?

Your organization's culture does not necessarily reflect the espoused list of values developed at an offsite meeting by the executive team and framed on the wall in your lobby. These are ideals. What you strive to be as an organization and what values you hope to endorse, may be different from the values, beliefs, and norms expressed in your actual practices and behavior. We expect alignment between the values and culture, but that all too often is not the case.

The culture we "claim" (i.e., vision, mission, values), may not be the actual culture of the organization.

Here's a classic example.  How many of you have been a customer of a company whose advertisements or literature says something like, "The Customer is our first priority," but had the exact opposite experience when dealing with them? We probably all have many examples.

Here's a subtler example. I often see companies list "team player" as a desired characteristic in job descriptions, and yet those same companies have rewards and recognition programs that are all geared towards the individual.

This is why, in reality, management's priorities are often the most reliable indicator of the organization's culture. And these priorities are often entirely different than the values a company verbalizes or the ideals it strives to espouse. Think for a minute about the organization in which you work. Does your management encourage or discourage innovation and risk-taking? Does it reward employees for coming up with new ideas and challenging old ways of doing things, or discourage challenging established norms and practices? Do mavericks fit in or do they get pushed out? Is rapid change the norm in your organization, or does management vigorously protect the status quo? Does the organization genuinely value excellence, or is there a "just ship it" mentality? Does management pay attention to the wellbeing of its employees, or is it solely focused on task performance and profits? Does a high level of employee participation characterize your culture or does senior management make most decisions?

In many ways, culture is like personality. In a person, the personality is made up of values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, interests, experiences, upbringing, and habits--all of which shape a person's behavior. Culture comprises the deeply rooted but often unconscious beliefs, values, and norms shared by the members of the organization. In short, our culture is "the way we do things around here."

Keep in mind that the culture of your organization as a whole may or may not be the culture of your team!  It is often the case that when a group of individuals works closely together, they form their own culture and their own way of "doing things around here." So as you ask yourself the questions about your organization's culture, ask those same questions about the team you manage/supervise.

How do you know what your culture is? Here is an exercise you can use to help you define your own culture or get more clarity on it.

Exercise: What Is Your Culture?

A self-inspection (You can do this with your team, too!):

  • What ten words best describe our organization and/or team?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How are employees selected for promotions?
  • Where do we focus most of our time/energy?
  • What types of behaviors do we reward?
  • Describe our physical work environment.
  • How does our team share performance feedback?     

Hopefully, this first exercise will help your team start to identify areas for improvement.