We often think of organizational culture (or community culture for that matter,) as something of an enigma. We feel that it arises organically in spite of any concerted effort for or against it. And when things go abysmally wrong, we point at this enigma, this thing we couldn’t have controlled even if we wanted to, and we cast blame and try to “fix” it.
This approach is a classically human one. We tell ourselves we will do everything in our power to fix the problems at hand. In the same breath, however, we tell ourselves that the problem is beyond our control. While organizational culture may be beyond our understanding most of the time, it is far less beyond our control than we believe.
Whether or not we see this, culture is strongly shaped by leadership and strategy. Every time we make a decision in our organizations we are setting a tone to which the larger community will respond.
Edgar Schein defines it as “[a] pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solves it’s problems of external adaptation and internal integration… A product of joint learning.”
Defining an Organization’s Culture
Every time a group needs to respond or adapt to a change of circumstances, they will together navigate the issue and develop new norms to understand the situation.
Consider this every time you choose to pursue a new project or client, or every time you promote an employee. Each of these decisions validates existing culture or challenges it. In this way, leadership choices shape culture every day.
No matter if you’re leadership, middle management, staff, etc. … if you are unhappy with your organization’s culture, ask yourself what role you play in shaping it. Are you validating or challenging the culture?
If you can push yourself further, consider your intentions. Are your behaviours in alignment with the culture you want? Observe with an open mind. Learn what role you play. Choose to play the role the reflects your values and goals with intention and strategy. The alternative is that culture is somewhat of a haphazard construction—not being intentional about culture can lead to an unintentional disaster.
If you are a member of a culture that is enigmatic to you, that could be a reflection of your level of self awareness. Undoubtedly, whether it’s internal or external, there is exploration work to be done.
There are a number of reliable cultural assessment methodologies and experienced professionals. Culture does not need to be a mystery. In fact, understanding your organizational culture may be the key to understanding other challenges within your organization.