What actually shapes culture

There are companies where culture is directed from the top down. While it’s natural to assume that this vision will simply emerge throughout the organization, this alone does not create culture. Within every company there are sub-cultures. In other words, each department or team can have its own unique culture. For example, the culture of a product management team can be distinct from the culture of the sales team. This can run in direct conflict of your top-down directed culture, and therefore, conflict ensues. Bottom line, culture isn’t what you say it is.

Culture is a complex, multifaceted thing. It is a convergence of individual personalities, communication processes, organizational policies, incentive structures, and leadership behaviors. It can seem almost impossible to get all these things running smoothly together. The problem isn’t that we don’t try, it’s that we misunderstand what culture is really made of. As soon as we better understand culture, we can create healthier, more productive ones.

Leaders often see culture as fixed. When clear policies and procedures are established, coupled with a documented list of values, and a handful of team-building activities – we consider it done. However, culture is constantly changing. New people are hired, bringing in their own past experience, knowledge, and personality to the group. While rules can provide a framework, they don’t address mindsets and behaviors. These two things are the core of what makes culture.

For instance, an organization may define high-level ideals they stand for, such as open communication. Yet these ideals are rarely, if ever, translated into specifically defined behaviors that represent them. How should open communication be interpreted? What does open communication look like? If an employee delivers bad news or shares contrarian ideas, is this communication accepted and embraced under this premise?

This ties directly to mindsets. Mindsets are a collection of beliefs and thoughts, which directly influence behaviors. Let’s take the same scenario as before. If the leaders in the organization, for example, have a generally distrustful mindset, they might believe employees won’t provide useful or effective feedback, and preliminarily dismiss their input. In short, they can laude open communication, but have the mindset that it’s futile. They simply push the concept as a way to paint culture in a positive light, rather than actually supporting the belief.

So what really makes culture? Policies? Procedures? These are simply manifestations of mindsets and behaviors. Instead of spending all your time defining the rules, first examine employee and leader perceptions and behaviors. Identify what’s working and what’s not. Be honest about how the organization thinks, feels, perceives, and acts. This will provide the best starting point for architecting an organizational culture that walks the talk.

Andrea Olsen
Andrea Olsen

About the Author

Andrea Belk Olson is a speaker, author, applied behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert.As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers, No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing, and her upcoming book, What To Ask, coming in June 2022.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineThe Financial BrandSMPS Marketer, and more. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and startup coach at the University of Iowa, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also a mentor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

More information is also available on www.pragmadik.com and www.andreabelkolson.com.

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