One clear signal that a term is abused is that everyone is using it, but no one really understand it. Culture is one of such terms.

We use culture to describe all types of social and organizational phenomenas:

  • When we say Facebook expects significant deliverables from their employee, we say Facebook’s culture is competitive.
  • when the interview candidate displays certain traits that are not directly align with the company values, we say they don’t fit our culture
  • When the interview candidate cares about how the company and the team works, they often ask: what’s the culture of the team?
  • When the company leadership wish to influence how people make their daily work decision process, they try to build the culture by setting an explicit value guide, sometimes they call it culture playbook.

It seems that culture can be anything: how the company recognize and reward their employee’s impact, the way that the daily work is organized, the values the company uses to guide the employee’s daily work and decision making process. But what is a company culture?

What is organizational culture?

By definition: organizational or corporate culture is the system of shared actions, values and beliefs that develops within an organization and guides the behavior of its members.

Two things stand out from this definition:

  • It is the shared actions, values and beliefs that are developed within the organization.
  • It is to guide the behavior of its members.

Too often we hear about build the culture for an organization: we mostly focus on the part of the culture that can be built or influenced by us directly. But just like the society culture, large part of the shared values and beliefs are developed naturally. In this situation, we use the term culture as a description to these shared actions, values and beliefs.

On the other hand, we also have to realize that all the culture building are for one purpose: the guide the behavior of its members. And in most of the time, it is to make the organization more productive.

Before we proceed to more details about the function of the corporate culture, I also want to define the boundary of corporate culture: corporate culture is an important element for the organization to successfully deliver the result, but is not the only element, there are other ones like the organization structure. We will continue to discuss the different function of these elements in later posts.

In order to understand the function of organizational culture, we must first understand what problem it tries to solve. There are two important problems the culture wants to solve: the external adaption and the internal integration.

The external adaption is about to answer the following question: what precisely needs to be accomplished, and how can it be done. While the internal integration process is to answer: how do members resolve the daily problems associated with living and working together.

How does culture solve the internal integration problem? For one example, how does the team members decides the statue of themselves on the team? While some company set title to indicate the level of seniority of the employees, and these titles in general will be transferred to the authority. While in other companies, there are way less titles, and they in general believe that the absent of titles would foster a more creative discussion. This is an example, how the corporate level culture would help shape the way the team member decide their status: how the team members should work together.

External adaption

The external adaption involves reaching goals and dealing with outsiders. And it involves a few concerns including: tasks to be accomplished, methods used to achieve the goal, the methods of coping with success and failure.

As a manager, it is critical to constantly think about this two process: does my team member knows what precisely needs to be done? Do they know how each should be done? And do they know how these activities will be rewarded? It is important to keep reinforce the mission of the whole team and to help them understand where are they in terms of the overall progress.

Internal integration

The internal integration is the process and flows how the team members should work together. Imaging the time you join a new organization, the first thing you want to know is: how people work, the goal of the organization, which part I am responsible for, who are my team members, what they are doing, how does my work related to theirs. The new team member will gradually figure out the answers to all these questions.

This two process applies to any level of organization. For a company or corporate, it is mainly to achieve the economic goal [try to find an example about the company culture]. For small teams, like one single engineering team, it is to help the bigger team to be successful.

Culture analysis

The goal of learning corporate culture is to be able to constantly change the culture so that the organization is in high performance. The first step is to be able to analyze the current culture, then to utilize the organization development skills to change the culture.

There are three levels of organizational culture: the observable aspect, the values, and the underlying assumptions.

The first level is observable culture, which means the way we do things in the workplace, it includes stories, ceremonies, and corporate rituals. In the start up company I am working on, the CEO will share the funding stories at the orientation: why he started this business and where the mission of the company comes from. These stories become a very important part of the company culture, and they will be told at many places by different people. This part servers the external adaption purpose: what goal does the organization want to achieve.

The second level is the shared values. This is also the most common seen part of the corporate culture. Organization for many times publish their shared values. And the company would invite the executives to share their story about these values as an example for the regular employees. The company also build the rewarding system: the performance evaluation system based on that. So in both the culture part and the rewarding system part, values is an essential part.

In the deepest level of culture analysis, is the common assumption. It is hard to tell what are the common assumptions, especially after people joining the organization for a while, these assumption becomes the basis for our daily work.

Company Values

Imaging that you are the founder of a company, how do you plan to run your organization? You must have questions like: what’s the mission of the organization? How do I make sure the entire organization is running effectively? On the early days, you might be able to achieve the goal by verbally talking to all the people in the team, but soon you will find out that the team grows outpace your capability to directly interact with everyone. And one of your solution will be: setting up a values that would help align the daily work and the decision making process of all the team members, and make sure the company’s rewarding system aligns with these values.

As a manager, it is important that you also make sure the team’s value align with the company’s value, though there could be different focus within each of your own domain.

Manage organizational culture

In general, there are two strategies for the managers to build the culture, the first one is to modify the observable culture, shared values, and common assumptions directly. The second is to use of organizational development techniques to modify specific elements of the culture. Managers can help foster a culture that provides answers to important questions concerning external adaption and internal integration.

So why should we understand how the organizational culture works? As a manager, it is critical to be able to build a high performance team. Except for setting the right talent level, building a good team culture is an important approach to influence the decision making process of the team. And through the influence, the manager an use the culture to shape the organization effectiveness.