Shaping Your Culture for Success: It’s not one-size-fits-all

In one way or another, culture helps to shape nearly everything that happens in and around an organization. As important as it is, though, it can be equally as confusing and hard to control. Work cultures seem to emerge as an unexpected by-product of randomness — a brief comment made by a manager, misinterpreted by direct-reports, propagated during water cooler conversations, and exaggerated by unrelated management decisions to downsize, reassign, promote, terminate, etc.

Culture can either grow wild and unmanaged — unpredictably influencing employee performance and undermining organizational goals — or it can be deliberately shaped to support what the organization is trying to achieve.

For the next few months, we will be taking a close look at culture. More specifically, we will be examining different kinds of cultures, because cultures are not “one size fits all.” Some organizations, such as high-risk operations in aviation or medicine, are best served by developing a culture of high-reliability. Others, such as tech or marketing firms, may do better pursuing a culture of innovation. In the coming months, we will explore these six kinds of culture:

  • High Reliability Culture
  • Innovative Culture
  • Agile Culture 
  • Competitive Culture
  • Safety Culture
  • Pathological Culture

To this end, we first need a working definition of culture. Please understand that our working definition (below) intentionally excludes some big ideas often associated with the concept. Unfortunately, “values,” “attitudes,” “beliefs,” and “artifacts” are themselves complex ideas that would bog us down. Such are the hazards of moving from the conceptual to the practical.

For our purposes, we will define culture as the “taken for granted way of doing things” within a social space. By “taken for granted” we mean that people behave and make decisions according to shared, informal guidelines without pausing to consider whether they are right, wrong, proper or improper. They follow the “unwritten rules.”  

For example, would you kick your feet up on on your boss’s desk during a one-on-one meeting? Probably not, but you might do it at home without thinking twice. In each space, there are different “taken for granted” guidelines that affect your behavior without you having to pause and think about what is appropriate in the moment.

(For more on what we mean by culture and where it comes from, check out last year’s blog, “Safety Culture Shift: Three Basic Steps.” It gets into the nitty-gritty of culture-formation.)

In an Innovative Culture, for example, people take for granted that they should openly challenge each other’s beliefs, broadcast their own hair-brained ideas, and actively pursue random conversations with random people. Clearly, some organizations would struggle if their employees took for granted that this is how they should behave, while other organizations would thrive.

With all of this in mind, let’s end with some questions to mull over until the next blog.

1.  In a perfect world, what would be the “taken for granted way of doing things” in your organization? 

What unwritten rules would help your organization better meet its goals? “We promptly report incidents?” “We adhere to every procedure?” Or, perhaps, “We candidly voice our disagreement?”

2.  What are the actual “taken for granted ways of doing things” in your organization? 

How would your employees respond if you asked them, “What are the unwritten rules for success in our company?”

3.  How well do your actual and desired cultures align?  

And how confident are you in your answer?