The Course of Culture

By Art Dykstra

Judging by the invitations to read that come across my desk or computer screen, it is obvious that today much attention is being given to the matter of corporate or organizational culture. Perhaps management consultants and academics are becoming more aware of the impact culture has on organizational productivity and performance. Mindful leaders in touch with their organization have known this for a long time.

If one accepts a rather vernacular definition of culture–“it’s the way things get done around here”–it becomes clear that the fundamental nature of an organization is known more through its culture than its formal tables of organization, policies and procedures. What is also clear, however, is a reciprocal effect. Those documents and mechanisms are continually shaping the culture even as the culture is creating, revising and acting–or not acting–on them.

Culture should not be ignored for it is this force that defines and clarifies the roles and relationships of employees and customers or clients. These relational elements include such issues as who can talk to whom, how members of the group relate to outsiders, and the degree of informality that is acceptable among staff.

Culture conveys corporate identity. We see it in the way the organization presents itself to the outside world–whether it be the behavior of staff at Big Lots or the Ritz Carlton. It further reveals itself in websites, publications and newsletters.
The culture of an organization further reflects the “should” and “should nots” of the organization, often disclosed in the new employees’ question. “What really gets you in trouble around here?” (Sad to say, sometimes it’s where you park.) The “right way” to do things is also communicated person to person in every organization.

Finally, culture influences the structure and processes of organizations–whether an organization is hierarchical or lateral, highly centralized or decentralized, formal or informal. It also influences promotion practices, the presence of creativity, whether people are emphasized over paperwork and the authority of line versus staff positions.

Clearly, culture has a great impact. We, as leaders, have a major role in shaping culture even as we allow ourselves to be shaped by these same forces. So, we need to be wise in our actions and vigilant in our organizational practices.