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16 Min Read

Just What The H*ck Is Organizational Culture Anyway?

David Mizne
David Mizne

For years, leaders in the HR/Management space, academics, and top business minds have all sought to define organizational culture. They have largely failed.

This is, of course, no easy task. Culture is nebulous, something that we feel but just can’t put a name to. It’s like the immortal soul. We can’t point to it, and some say that it doesn’t exist, but who can deny that there is something magical and mysterious about our lives?

Left with little choice, people define the intangible by pointing to the elements of it—where people bend the rules, the way that people speak to each other, or the feeling most people have when they visit the office. All of these intangibles coalesce into the essence of your organizational culture.

But I’d like to offer a specific definition:

Too big to fail?

As it grows past a certain size, if it does not have flexible elements built-in, any company will collapse under its own weight. This can happen because communication breaks down and people tend to serve themselves over the collective. When human connection and shared beliefs fail, the organism that is a company begins to die. Or worse, when toxic elements arise, like people who try to undermine the existing beliefs, decay is introduced into the system.

In the natural world, monoliths crumble all the time, but a tree can live and continue to grow forever. The reason for that is because trees are living things made up of smaller living components. They have leaves that eat sunlight, branches that sway in the wind, and seed pods that can lie dormant for decades until the right event signals to the organism that the time has come to proliferate.

And life comes with a component lacking in a dead system— flexibility. Even the biggest of trees that look indestructible and unmovable is flexible; it sways in high winds to prevent itself from breaking. Indeed, it is this wind that strengthens trees as they grow. If the wind is a turbulent marketplace, with factors beyond your control and sometimes even your predictability, wouldn’t you prefer to ride out the storm with strength and flexibility, instead of holding fast to rigid and breakable systems?

Your company, like a tree, is also comprised of living components called human beings. While they can be given strict standards, policies, and guidelines to adhere to in the course of doing their work, they are living things that require a certain amount of autonomy and freedom. They require nourishment and room to grow. This balance point between the rigid and the flexible is unique to every culture.

Businesses use systems and policies to create uniformity for good reasons; collecting useable data points, avoiding employment litigation, etc., but these systems are often rigid, and inflexible. They are the hallmarks of bureaucracy and top-down management styles. If you focus solely on them you are allowing human connections and trust to break down.

So instead, celebrate what makes each individual at your company unique. Encourage them to forge genuine relationships and provide growth opportunities to avoid calcifying the very flexibility that employees must have in order to thrive.

Why organizational culture?

Some business leaders may think that competitive pay and benefits are sufficient, that a healthy culture isn’t necessary as long as the company and employees are financially successful. Sure, revenue growth and compensation are important. It helps you stay competitive and lets employees have enough financial abundance to alleviate fear and stress that might otherwise impact their work. (Or maybe it’s a status thing. But let’s leave the tech bros out of this conversation.) The bottom line is that salaries and benefits do help you compete for talent, but in the end they are not enough.

Science has proven that humans aren’t fully motivated by compensation past a certain amount. So anything above that eventually fades into the background. And other perks like catered meals or plentiful snacks become normal expectations over time. Culture responds to different and higher human needs, the sense of psychological safety, of belonging, and of fulfilling a higher purpose.

Culture is what already exists at your company (whether you create it intentionally or not) and must be periodically directed or redirected by the efforts of leaders. It has touchpoints like a mission that provides purpose, and core values to provide direction. All of these efforts are conducive in creating a flexible environment that people have space to move within. For example, some days an employee may be aligning mainly with our value of Hold and Be Held Accountable, on a different day it may be Dare to Dream. Each employee has guidelines and the flexibility to work within them to do what they deem is of the highest contribution.

Creating culture in an existing business

In some businesses, leaders did not at first know how to intentionally create an organizational culture from the outset or did not consider it a priority. If you as a leader have not intentionally created your culture, that’s okay! There are already existing elements that have naturally emerged at your company. You just have to extract the values from those experiences and codify them. But to access these you have to be tapped in to your employees.

For example, a new 15Five employee was once asked to end a meeting with a phrase to kickstart the action items developed during the meeting. Put on the spot, he paused and eventually stammered, “Hope we do good”. Everyone laughed and the phrase was repeated over the years to the point that it has become a traditional and inspirational quote. This story became a cultural phenomena of sorts. Leaders can use moments like that. Maybe tie it to a value like Always Do Good or Hope Is Not Enough. Eventually people may forget about the inciting instance, but the value will remain.

You may not have planted the tree (created the culture), but you can provide the rain, soil, and sunlight now. Organizational cultures must be nurtured like any living thing– to grow in the right direction and to be pruned back when certain elements grow out of control and threaten the organism. You don’t create the tree, even if you planted the seed, but you must diligently care for it or it will die.

Creating cultures from scratch

If you are fortunate or forward thinking enough to be conscious of culture-building when you begin your company, then you will ideally establish values and purpose-creating elements like a mission and vision. You can then hire people who share the same values and are inspired by the same company purpose. (Note that “shared values” can lead to a homogenous workforce. Always consider the power of diversity and inclusion when building the team.)

But make no mistake, as a company grows culture becomes harder to maintain. Microcultures will form within certain groups that will either fit inside of the macroculture or threaten it. You will have to choose what flexibility will be in that system, how microcultures are allowed to differ, and what the universally shared values will be. Unless you want a deliberately competitive culture, you can’t allow a rogue faction to be created within the organization. Steve Jobs did this with his Mac team in the 1980’s and it created strife at Apple among the teams.

Tools like employee feedback software allow for the safe creation and maintenance of team microcultures within the greater macroculture, because they help managers build authentic relationships with their employees. Microcultures can exist on teams when there is strong company-wide communication because they are not competitive and silos can’t form. These are just naturally occurring conversations and experiences on different teams that have their own center of gravity. While there is some uniqueness in each microculture, there must also be common threads of purpose and core values that connect everyone in the company.

When organizational culture itself becomes a rigid system then you are screwed. Some companies try to layer in language that becomes the way people speak. This type of conditioning can be off-putting, and in the long run people will eventually mock it. So, one way to bake in flexibility is to allow space for individual uniqueness. While there is a comfort to shared language, people also need to be creative and to interpret language to make it their own.

A great example of this is your elevator pitch. Do you want your go-to-market teams to sound robotic and uniform, regurgitating memorized boilerplate? Or do you want each person to have their own take on the same basic message? Again, flexibility is important.

The exact ratio of flexibility and rigidity in the system is ever-evolving. Too much rigidity and the system will break. Too much flexibility and the system cannot stand.  So how do you determine the perfect ratio in every moment? Each system from a particular team’s microculture all the way up to the entire company macroculture must be analyzed on a regular basis to see if it still fits.  

So many programs, books, and terms have been created to define organizational culture – The Culture Code, The Culture Blueprint, culture of communication, transparent culture… there is no right way of doing culture, because every company is unique. You as a leader have the opportunity to assemble a unique constellation of human being whose individual talents become expressed in the group field. Ensure that field is as fertile as possible and then watch your business grow.

David Mizne

David Mizne is Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360 reviews. David’s articles have also appeared on The Next Web & The Economist. Follow him @davidmizne.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash