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Considering Culture

Optimize Blog - January 30, 2017 - 0 comments

Cultures exist wherever there is a collection of people, however big or small that group is. The group could be as large as a nation or as small as a student study group. Interestingly, it is not the size of the group or its purpose that determines its culture.
When people describe the great civilizations of history there is a strong element of culture in their meaning. They are not just describing what these civilizations achieved over many years but how they achieved it. They are describing the values, the beliefs, the customs and behaviours that constituted the way of life of the various peoples that made up that civilization.
Business leaders often assume that their company’s vision, values, and strategic priorities are synonymous with their company’s culture. Companies need a good definition of corporate culture before they can begin to understand how to change the corporate culture.
So how would we define the term ‘culture’? Perhaps – “The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning”. For a business we might refine this as “A blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time”.
The word culture originates from the Latin for ‘to cultivate’, or in other words, ‘to develop’, ‘to nurture’ or ‘to grow’. All of these descriptions are reliant on an element of time and a conscious application of effort or focus – neither of which should come as a surprise, but which both have important implications to those of us concerned with organizational cultures.
Organizational cultures are self-reinforcing. Reinforcement is multi-layered, can be overt or covert, intended or inadvertent. It can include a huge range of actions or behaviours, such as the subtle appreciation of people behaving in the ‘right’ way, the acceptance (or otherwise) of particular communication styles and methods and even the recruitment process.
Often managers or recruiters will hire people that are somewhat ‘like them’ or that would be a ‘good fit’ with the organization. As individuals we also tend to want to join companies that are reflective of us and our personal values and which have environments where we’d feel comfortable. This is neither a good or bad thing but it does illustrate how broadly and deeply the organizational culture is embedded – it is, after all, a reflection of all the people, all the practices, all the processes, all the behaviours and all the values that make up that organization.
So, if we imagine all the possible layers of cultural reinforcement that have been put down over the years and which are embedded in every part of the organization, we begin to see just how difficult it is to shift the prevailing culture.
It is clear that time plays a major part and culture evolves and develops over long periods and therefore trying to change that culture in a time frame that suits or supports a change in business direction or requirements is actually not often possible, if ever. Trying to change an organization’s culture is a potentially meaningless aspiration if timeframes are not appropriate and it requires that the leadership team recognizes it as a distant, long term goal.
Cultural alignment is unlikely without a sustained, conscious application of effort to deliver it. Start by influencing behaviours and rewarding those behaviours you want to see. At the same time put a stop to the behaviours you don’t want to see – be explicit and don’t shy away from holding others accountable for the way they behave.

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