Is Your Corporate Culture Real or Fiction?

It is critical that you learn the facts about your corporate culture – who you really are as well as striving for who you want to be.  Understanding and assessing your organization’s culture can mean the difference between success and failure in today’s fast changing business environment. Unfortunately, senior management, particularly the CEO, often view the organization’s culture more on hope than a view grounded in objective fact. Is your corporate culture reality or is it a fiction?

If you were to quickly describe your company in about 10 words you would get an indication of the organization’s culture.  This is often very different from the values it verbalizes or the ideals it strives for. Does the organization reward and encourage or punish and discourage such things as innovation, risk taking, new ideas, challenges to old ways, change, status quo, excellence, well being of employees, task performance and profits, employee participation?  This inquiry can give insight into the real culture of your organization and some of its underlying values and norms.  The corporate culture may not resemble the culture management thinks it has created.

Your organization’s culture is not a list of values developed at an offsite retreat by the executive team.  It is the values, beliefs and norms expressed in your actual practices and behavior shared by every member of the organization.  Often new hires, vendors or consultants like executive coaches, those not living inside the culture, can see it more objectively.

Culture is important because it drives the organization like an operating system.  It guides how employees think, act and feel.  Some aspects of culture are intangible and unconscious such as the value of conflict avoidance; it may have a major influence on the organization but it may be unconscious. Other values, the values that employees discuss, promote and live by, are at a more conscious level.

There are visible expressions of the culture called artifacts that include the architecture and decor, clothing, the organizational processes and structures, rituals, symbols and celebrations. Other visible expressions are language and jargon, logos, brochures, company slogans, as well as status symbols such as cars, window offices, titles, value statements and priorities. An outsider can often spot these artifacts easily upon entering an organization but become part of the background for employees.

The corporate culture reflects the personality of the CEO and the leaders.   Management’s behavior, what it emphasizes, rewards and punishes sets the culture.  If the CEO is secretive or confrontational everyone else will exhibit these behaviors.  If the culture is firmly established when a new CEO assumes leadership they will either be a guardian of the old culture or be a change agent charged with dramatically changing the culture.

Organizations develop cultures whether they try to or not.  Understanding your culture in an objective manner can give you a business advantage when you appraise individual-organization fit, align culture with its strategic goals, understand subcultures, assess mergers and acquisitions partners or make organizational changes in practices or values.  It requires management to face the reality of what kind of culture really exists and provides an opportunity to bridge the gap between reality and the ideal corporate culture.