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.
For example, 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.
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. Unfortunately, business leaders sometimes assume that their company’s vision, values, and strategic priorities are synonymous with their company’s culture.