How Do You Define a Culture?

"Oh," mentioned the recruiter, "this is a position that fits well with your skills."

"Okay," I said, "tell me more about the company."

"Well, it is an interesting place that I am sure will use all of your skills."

I thought to myself, "What a strange statement." I think I am hearing recruiter code, so I asked a few more questions: How long has this position been posted? What is turnover like? Does the company believe in work-life balance?

Upon digging deeper I began to understand how this company would use all of my skills. I would need them all just to get through a day there. People saw each other internally as threats. The CEO would often walk around at 6 p.m. just to see if people were at their desks. He would then call these "town hall" meetings where he would read off a list of people who were not at their desks at 6 p.m., trying to humiliate them. The company was a remnant of a once regulated monopoly and inherited an onerous amount of procedures, which forced people to spend a lot of time filling out useless paperwork. Human resources served a limited functional role of benefits, hiring, firing and compensation. All decisions were made by CEO, who had very little regard for the people who worked for him. About a year later, the CEO was fired because of the poor financial performance of the company. People were working hard but accomplishing very little.

If a culture study had been done on this organization they would have found the attitudes and behaviors of the staff to be very negative. After examining a lot of both popular and academic literature on culture, I noticed that the great bulk centered on attitudes and behaviors. Although these are very important and key parts of the culture, I wondered why nobody had looked deeper to find the causes of the attitudes and behaviors. By understanding leadership, processes and rewards with attitudes and behaviors we can begin to understand not just the "what" but the "hows" and "whys" of an organization’s culture.

The Tetrahedron of Culture

In my first column I discussed four elements that, when put together, can help you begin to understand a culture. There are four elements that each have three sides. These are:

  • Leadership
    • Empowerment
    • Vision and strategy
    • Ethics and values
  • Processes
    • Quality
    • Consistency
    • Flexibility
  • Rewards
    • Compensation
    • Recognition
    • Punishments
  • Attitudes and Behaviors
    • Diversity
    • Internal norms
    • Customers/external norms

As part of our benchmarking series, which will be conducted in collaboration with e-BIM beginning in September, we will be measuring and examining each element of culture. Our first article will look at diversity. It is the latest buzzword. Yet, most organizations have the wrong belief about diversity. They define it as gender, ethnicity, age or race, but it is something much deeper. It is about the issue that many organizations have difficulty with—people thinking differently. Real diversity is hiring people who share the values of the organization but they may be from different fields or even have had their own business. We will be looking at the difference between ethics and values and how these are both a function of leadership and impact an organization’s culture.