Why is Culture Complicated?

Is culture complicated? It is certainly complex! Culture is multi-dimensional and interconnected. It’s not about employee happiness, how an organization feels or about employee morale. Culture isn’t casual dress or fooz ball tables. Culture is unique and complicated because people are unique and complicated. Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people. Together people learn and make sense out of those experiences.

For example, when Donna worked at Coopers & Lybrand, a project would begin and the leader would set the start time for the day. Then each day the team would show up a few minutes earlier until the work day was starting at 6 am or earlier. There was a legendary team that worked on Quaker State that would go out all night and then head into the office in the wee hours to begin their work day! The shared experience taught employees that they were supposed to work hard and play hard. It also reinforced the belief that the number of hours you worked was a badge of honor. It was a culture where Saturday work in the office was expected and we felt lucky because we didn’t have to dress formally! We learned that success was measured in hours and face time.

The visual representation of culture in the image above is based on Dr. Edgar Schein’s explanation of culture. Seeing the layers helps explain why “flip flops and free beer” are not culture. They are artifacts that you may see but there are underlying values and beliefs that create the true culture of the organization. This is the deep, stable (change-resistant), interconnected nature of culture.

We worked with an organization whose CEO fancied it a high-tech company. The lunch rooms got a makeover and the walls were painted bright colors (some walls were so bright they had to soften them by painting them a more subdued shade!) The new décor didn’t create a high-tech culture. Their processes were still cumbersome, managers still believed people had to be in the office to do productive work (versus being able to work remotely) and the office was deadly silent versus buzzing with energy.  The artifacts contradicted what was really going on in the organization.

As you observe the artifacts of culture, be careful not to attribute too much meaning. There are beliefs and values that drive behaviors which could be very different than what you see. This is why change is much more challenging than making a declaration explaining what’s changing. Some leaders believe if they emulate the Google work environment, they’ll create the Google culture. Hopefully we’ve shed some light on the reality that nap pods, free lunches and cool décor are only a small aspect of culture. Deep levels of change require reworking foundational beliefs and mindsets. Culture is complicated!

Your Guide to Organizational Culture

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