Do You Know What’s Really Driving Your Organizational Culture?

January 26, 2016

When I was a young child, I was convinced that the characters I saw in the glowing image of my family’s television set were actually running around inside the box. They walked, they talked, they even told jokes. As far as I was concerned that was all I needed to conclude that they were, in fact, real.

Only later did I learn that those wonderful images on the television screen were actually created by electromagnetic waves that passed through the air to produce the illusion—a manifestation that captured my attention all those Saturday mornings.

When I talk to people about the concept of organizational culture as it relates to business challenges, a similar phenomenon tends to occur. Our conversation centers around what people think the reality of their situation is. What they often describe when sharing their experiences are the manifestations of the underlying culture rather than the culture itself.

This is what makes the study and shaping of an organizational culture so difficult. We can only really see the impact of a culture on us as the roots of what drive those behaviors (the culture) remains beneath the surface.

Whether it’s high turnover, lack of sales growth or declining customer service, business leaders tend to focus on visible business challenges. It makes sense, as these challenges are easily measurable. The real question becomes, how does one dig beneath the visible manifestations of a culture to begin to understand the beliefs, values and assumptions that are driving behavior and results to begin with?

How To See Through The Looking Glass

Do You Know What’s Really Driving Your Organizational Culture? Here are four tips to help you begin to really understand what is driving behavior in your organization:

  1. Culture is a collective concept. Unlike understanding things like employee engagement, which centers around the individual and their experience, the culture of an organization develops over time as the group has shared experiences and learns what works and what doesn’t. This difference means that, in order to understand a culture, one must understand how the collective has formed their shared belief system. I’ve found that the best way to truly understand these underlying beliefs and values is done by actively engaging the collective in the process of uncovering these shared aspects of the way they work together.
  2. You may need some outside perspective. Making matters more difficult is that oftentimes, these deeply rooted beliefs often influence peoples’ perceptions and behavior without them being aware of it. When you’ve worked in an organization for a while, you begin to pick up on cues from others that shape your behavior without thinking about it. This can make understanding the culture in which you reside a challenge. Sometimes it can be helpful to enlist folks external to your company to assist you in taking a fresh and unbiased look at what’s going on.
  3. Don’t jump to conclusions. What you see isn’t always what you get. For many busy business leaders, it can be tempting to do a quick analysis and make reactive decisions. We’re all busy, and speed is of the essence. Unfortunately, when working with a concept as deep as culture, this may result in intervening at too shallow a level and addressing the symptoms rather than the root problem.
  4. Understand the why behind the what. Deming is cited as saying, “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable, but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.” (Deming, W. Edwards (1986). Out of the Crisis. MIT Press.) There are a variety of ways in which organizational psychologists work to bring to light the underlying culture of an organization. While these methods shed light on an organization’s culture, they never are completely comprehensive. That said, the power that culture has on people’s behavior, and therefore your company’s results, cannot be ignored.

Take a moment to look at your organization’s culture. What do you see? How are the collective behaviors of your team helping or hindering business performance?

Whether you can see it or not, there is a lot happening under the surface. We may not always be able to best determine what it is that drives behavior. We might be influenced by own values or assumptions, or the behaviors of others. But once you see through the looking glass, you may find that your culture is impacting business outcomes in more ways than you realize.

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