Asking someone to describe their organizational culture is like asking a fish to describe water. If that fish could describe water, it probably wouldn’t be able to do so, because it’s not aware of it. While it’s all around him and he breathes it, it is not one of the things he would be consciously aware of. He swims in it. Human beings are much the same about their organizational culture. People, like fish, are most often completely unaware of their surrounding organizational culture. They swim in it just like fish swim in water.

Culture is the glue that holds together all of our values, our beliefs, our sense of self, and our confidence and trust in the people around us, whether that’s our family, our place of worship, our community, our nation, or our workplace. Culture is what defines us as individuals, as citizens, as parents, as employers, and as employees. Our culture is what sets us apart from other people, other organizations, and other nations. When we believe in our culture, we are motivated to protect it against all the odds. In contrast, if we don’t believe in our culture, we will barely lift a finger to help it survive.

Early Cultural Learning

We learn this early, even before we know the words to define it. Most of us learn the meaning of culture within the structure of our family. When we work together, respect each other, and share a healthy core of values, the result is a caring family that will nurture our growth into caring, confident adults.

This learning carries over into school. We all have memories of how we fit into the classroom, how easy or hard it was to be accepted, and how well our teachers created environments in which we felt motivated to learn and interact with others.

My school memories are very clear. I was a hyperactive (what we would now probably call ADD) child. By the fifth grade, there was a question as to who would run the class: the teacher or me. My parents and school administrators intervened, however, and I was sent to Missouri Military Academy to learn discipline in a more structured setting. And I did. In military school, you either toed the mark, or you stood at attention facing the wall behind your dorm room door for what seemed like hours.

That fifth-grade year was a turning point in my life. I quickly learned what it meant to function within a strong culture. At first, I just wanted to survive. It was plain to me that students who bought into the school’s culture of results, respect, and discipline got ahead. They won the special privileges, they even got their horses assigned to them, and they got promoted in rank to leadership positions. No question about it, I wanted to find a place among the successful.

Characteristics of Strong Cultures

Civil Conversations Step Three: Stay Calm

I learned that a strong culture defines its core values. It might have seemed harsh at the time. There was nothing fuzzy about the demands—or the rewards. While I never became a perfect student, I learned that I had a better chance to succeed when I clearly knew how to perform and operated within the boundaries of the culture. I remembered those lessons and applied them diligently when I taught school, and later when I left the teaching profession to pursue a corporate career.

Dan Denison, a professor at the University of Michigan, defines culture as, “[t]he underlying values, beliefs and principles that serve as a foundation for an organization’s management system as well as the practices and behaviors that both exemplify and reinforce those basic principles.”  Though there have been many attempts to define culture since Aristotle, I’ve come to believe that organizational culture is simply the norms of behavior and shared values of the organization. Organizational culture is simply how one gets along around here.

Organizational Culture Explored

In the coming weeks, we are going to explore this whole subject of organizational culture. What it is, what makes it up, and how to better understand and measure it regarding organizational performance.

Great organizational cultures are not that hard to find. Take Southwest Airlines, which exudes high performance. The airline is almost always number one in each of the following measurements:

  • Profitability
  • Competitiveness
  • Productivity
  • Customer service
  • Safety
  • Stock appreciation
  • Employee satisfaction

The Southwest Airlines culture is so well-known that the company conducts tours and lectures on the subject at their home office in Houston.  Travelers are impressed with the outward expressions of outstanding culture that take place in most of the terminal locations and on many Southwest planes.  Occasionally, you run into a Southwest Airlines terminal or a plane the does not exhibit these characteristics. This truth points to another factor we will be investigating in the coming weeks: enterprise cultures and their subcultures. Subcultures are the subcomponents of an enterprise—its subsidiaries, divisions, departments and even its teams, large and small.

Culture drives the behavior and performance of almost all of the people within any workplace. Over my 35+ years of leadership, in both small and large companies, I have become increasingly aware of the presences of particular workplace cultural elements. Elements that either limited the performance of the people within those organizations and the organizations themselves or drove them to reach unbelievably high levels. I have also come to understand that managing the factors that make up organizational culture requires a clear understanding of leadership elements and how to make them work together. Doing this can drive performance and enable people and organizations to live up to their true potential. While there has never been a “perfect workplace culture,” there have been many that were far superior to those around them. We just need to know, understand, and accept that cultural leadership is a “continuous, never-ending journey of self-improvement.”

Critical Cultural Elements

Step Two for Civil Conversation

The names of these critical workplace cultural elements are:

  • Core Values
  • Products and Services
  • Direction
  • Structure
  • Measurements
  • Rewards

The exercise of working with these elements on a daily basis provides the opportunity to reshape and improve how an organization and the people within carry out their individual and collective workplace responsibilities. For example, to reward associates, you need to involve them in developing their performance measurements (Measurements element). But you can’t set appropriate measurements without each stakeholder having a clear sense of who is responsible for what in their organization (Structure element). Also, to move forward, stakeholders need to know where their organization is headed (Direction element). Furthermore, you can’t develop an effective direction if you don’t understand how well you will meet present and future customer needs (Products and Services element). Of course, our core values (Core Values element) determine how well we interact with each of our stakeholders in carrying out the initiatives within each of the other critical elements.

Clearly, there’s an interdependent relationship that allows these elements to move in harmony with each other. Understanding where your organization is in relation to each of these elements will, in turn, help you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your culture regarding its potential to produce significant outcomes.

Working on cultural effectiveness in no way takes away from how you approach organizational performance. Some of the cultural elements are themselves essential to organizational efficiency and effectiveness, such as setting appropriate goals, measuring performance, and tying those measurements to the rewards processes.

Work On and In the House

I’m not suggesting that you stop working on the business of the day to focus exclusively on culture. Rather, I’m suggesting that as leaders, we ought to execute the business of the day with a clear mindset that we are at the same time, working on the culture of the organization. By working on both simultaneously, we will build a stronger, more effective workplace culture and develop stronger cultural leaders for the future.

I view cultural leaders as managers who have a strong sense of their organization’s purpose and also a keen understanding that they must spend a significant amount of time working “on the house,” and not spend all their time working “in the house.”

Over the coming weeks, we will be taking apart our respective organizations and learning how to analyze and measure each of these elements in a unique way (See the graphic below) that will enable you to dramatically improve the performance of your organization while making it a much more fun place to work.


Photo credits: Visionomics, Inc. and