Organisational Culture – What is it?

Culture is roughly everything we do and monkeys don’t.” So said Major FitzRoy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan and great grandson of the first Lord Raglan of Crimean War fame. Translating that definition to organisational culture might take some doing.

I am currently engaged in an assignment which requires amongst other things making some observations about the organisation’s culture. In such instances the first matter to be addressed is “what does organisational culture mean?”. A colleague of mine refers to organisational culture as “the way we do things around here“. I think it is much more than that. I think the culture of an organisation is about how it lives, breathes, thinks, feels, learns, and reacts.

(Image: Courtesy

Some learned definitions include reference to culture being a set of assumptions that people within organisations apply automatically to their dealings with others. In other words it breeds a patchwork of behaviours and thinking patterns that are invoked as second nature in the working environment. 


Elements of organisational culture.

When people think about organisational culture they usually try to identify it by elements such as leadership, communication, values, behavioural norms and the like. In my mind however it is not just about how the organisation is currently led, it is about how it nurtures future leaders. It is not just about how people communicate but it is about the nature and quality of that communication and the behaviours it breeds. It is not just the values an organisation demonstrates at any point in time but how it creates and evolves values over time.

It is about how individuals with their particular management and interactive styles can influence their peers and subordinates and ultimately impact on customers and other stakeholders. It is how the organisation reflects and demands good practice. It is how the organisation and its parts are able to commit to the agreed goals,  and indeed how it formulates those goals to begin with. Does it do this in the form of executives working in isolation or by consultation within layers of management or perhaps in deeper engagement with all stakeholders, including the workers themselves?

Understanding organisational culture.

How do we understand organisational culture?

Firstly, we should recognise the observation of writer Rolf Winkler:

It over simplifies the situation in large organizations to assume there is only one culture… and it’s risky for new leaders to ignore the sub-cultures. The cultures of organizations are never monolithic. There are many factors that drive internal variations in the culture of business functions.”

So what enquiries do we need to make and what questions do we need to ask to find out about an organisation’s culture?
Typically we will ask people in the organisation about:

  • how they perceive and value their leaders;
  • how they feel they are being treated as individuals and contributors to the corporate whole;
  • how they learn and develop;Officeculture
  • the values that guide their service to colleagues and customers;
  • whether and how they derive satisfaction from what they do;
  • how problems are solved, how creativity and ideas are received, how matters of conflict are resolved;
  • how well people work in teams and in collaborative endeavour.

When we have the answers to these questions how do we judge the culture the responses describe and against what standard?

We need to have some idea as to what the ideal is. What standard of culture would we expect the organisation to achieve in pursuing the goals set for it. Once we determine the standard we can measure the current status against that standard.

What if we don’t like the current culture?

Having determined that there is a gap between desired standard and current practice what are we prepared to do about it? This is an especially important question if those responsible for perpetuating the gap are in fact the appointed leaders of the organisation.

Is it possible or even desirable to tamper with organisational culture? According to one of the founders of modern management theory, Peter Drucker: “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.” 

However if the culture is not leading the organisation in the direction that is desired a point will be reached where, unless there is cultural change the organisation will be led to outcomes it does not desire.

Organisational Culture - Drucker(Image:

Establishing and maintaining organisational culture is not purely a matter for senior management. Indeed some of the most effective influences on organisational culture, for good or evil, are resident amongst middle and lower level managers and supervisors. It is to these people that the younger members of the organisation look to as role models and readily adapt to the values they observe or are being taught.

Management often sees organisation-wide culture change too difficult to attempt in one go. It is often a good option to start with a partial offensive against “the line of least resistance”. This metaphor describes the path that requires the least amount of effort or force, or, offers the least amount of opposition to the required change.

Organisational culture surveys can often identify those areas where the greatest effect can be achieved with the least amount of resourcing or pain and aggravation. This can involve very active intervention by removing the negative aspects of the culture, including individuals if necessary, or more subtle approaches to improving workplace environments and leveraging the better aspects of leaders and influential followers, always reinforcing and rewarding the desirable behaviours and censoring the less desirable.

All this require significant commitment on the part of senior management with perseverance and consistency of approach… and a certain tolerance for frustration.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1532)

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