Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

by Emily Morrow

Workplace culture: what it is and why it matters

Culture is like air: It’s everywhere and nowhere. Most of the time we are unaware of it but sometimes it dominates our attention. Recall, for example, the extraordinary level of air pollution in Beijing in January 2014. The air in Beijing became almost opaque, unbreathable, and a worldwide headline story.

Similarly, much of an organization’s culture is taken as a given. Like the air, people interact with it unthinkingly; they “breathe” it in and it impacts them, and as they exhale they impact the culture itself. Culture is, therefore, both exceedingly stable and potentially malleable.

All workplaces have unique and pervasive cultures. Those offices that function at an optimal level are invariably the ones that understand their culture and how to modify and enhance it. Sadly, workplaces of this type are few and far between. Most professionals seldom, if ever, critically examine their organizational culture and how it impacts their ability to work, serve their customers, and get along with each other.

What about your office? Do people discuss the organizational culture? Do they ask tough questions about it? Are they able to articulate crisply and clearly its core values? Do they compare those to other offices to identify and incorporate best practices? When problems arise or opportunities present, does the organization consider them only through the lens of its culture or choose to apply different perspectives?

If an office wants to identify, examine, and potentially enhance its culture, how can it do so? Managers and employers often say to me, “I suspect the challenges we are dealing with have to do with deeply entrenched aspects of our office culture. However, I have no idea how to address that.” I usually ask, “How motivated are you and everyone else to take this on?” If the answer is “We are highly motivated,” I suspect we are off and running.

Edgar Schein, in his fabulous book Organizational Culture and Leadership, provides an excellent framework for organizational culture analysis as follows:

“Cultural artifacts,” which Schein defines as including “all the phenomena that one sees, hears, and feels when one encounters a new group with an unfamiliar culture. Artifacts include the visible products of the group, such as the architecture of its physical environment, its technology and products; its artistic creations; its style ...; its published lists of values ....”

“Espoused values,” or “... what people will say in a variety of situations but which may be out of line with what they will actually do in situations in which those beliefs and values should, in fact, be operating.”

“Basic underlying assumptions,” or “... theories-in-use — the implicit assumptions that actually guide behavior, that tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things.”

If an organization wants to better understand its culture, a good way to do so is to have a facilitated discussion about its existing culture and its cultural artifacts, espoused values, and basic underlying assumptions. The focus should be on 1) identifying underlying cultural assumptions and the extent to which they either support or hinder the organization’s ability to function optimally, and 2) identifying specific changes in “how things are done” to get better outcomes. The group should seek to articulate a crisp, clear, one- or two-sentence statement of what its ideal culture might look like and what organizational changes are needed to achieve that.

This process is a journey and not a destination. It’s not esoteric or difficult; in fact any office can engage in this kind of discussion and self-reflection. Perhaps it is something that might benefit your office at some point. •

Emily Morrow, JD ( of Shelburne and Auckland, New Zealand, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives, and HR personnel.

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