Culture In The Workplace – How Is It Shaped?

Have you ever asked yourself how the work culture of an organization is created and shaped? For example, why does one company encourage a “by the book” culture while a competitor in the same industry encourages a culture that thrives on collaboration and creativity?

This post will describe how work culture is created and developed in an organizational setting.  Once understood, you can better assess the impact your change initiative might have on your organization.

Work culture is formed by:
1) the unique business philosophies of the founder(s) of the company,
2) the unique set of challenges presented along the way, and
3) the unique set of solutions implemented to overcome these challenges

You can view the video below for a quick summary of these factors:

Changing The Work Culture – How Hard Can It Be?
Edgar Schein is my favorite author on the subject of organizational culture. Schein explains that organizational culture is the most difficult organizational attribute to change – outlasting organizational products, services, founders and leadership and all other physical attributes of the organization.

Schein describes organizational culture as follows:
“A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (source: Organizational Culture and Leadership).

In a sense, the work culture dictates how an employee within the company should behave in order to accomplish a goal. Any deviation from the accepted way to accomplish a goal will receive resistance. A frequent outcome for an individual going against the grain will be ostracization from the group – even if they were able to accomplish the set goal.

A Practical Way To Dissect Organizational Culture
Edgar Schein explains that organizational culture can be understood at three levels: artifacts, espoused values and tacit assumptions.

1. Artifacts
An artifact refers to the visible organizational objects, structures and processes. One source of artifact is the physical layout of the office space in an organization. Employees with a superior status (i.e. executives) are entitled to a private office while the rest of the employees are placed in open cubicles. In this case, organizational authority is made visible through seating privileges.

2. Espoused Values
An espoused value can be a past solution that has been transformed into a concrete assumption, such as a consulting firm’s methodology for large-systems implementations. These values are also communicated via the company’s mission statement, philosophies, goals and strategies.

3. Tacit Assumptions
Tacit assumptions are cryptic and sometimes contradicting to what is said in public.  They are found at the deepest level of the organization. It is the hardest aspect of the culture to decipher for newcomers and outsiders. For example, a company may tout that they possess a great work/life balance in their organization; however, this may not apply in the face of looming client deadlines.  Many newcomers to an organization learn about these types of tacit assumptions by trial and error, which may lead to certain ‘rookie’ mistakes.

Understanding the artifacts, espoused values and tacit assumptions of an organization will enable you to better gauge the organizational impact for planned change. A change initiative impacting the tacit assumptions of an organization will be much more difficult to implement than a change that only affects organizational artifacts.  But then again, you may not realize that a change impacts tacit assumptions until you start the change process. Tread carefully.

How Is This Useful?
So far, I’ve simply explained the elements that shape organizational culture. I haven’t proposed or recommended any strategies for changing an existing culture for a specific purpose.  (This will be addressed in a separate post.)

In this post, I wanted only to make evident the power that the founding leaders have in shaping organizational culture during the initial expansion of the organization. As the organization grows, the work culture is further developed by all those involved with addressing organizational challenges that present themselves along the way.  As discussed, the solutions to these challenges (i.e. specific methodology, appropriate behavior, a chosen group or person to address the problem) transform into concrete assumptions with regard to how things get done within an organization.

Gaining a deep understanding of a company’s history and the challenges it has overcome will give you a better sense of why the current leaders, managers and employees behave the way they do on a day-to-day basis. Equipped with this knowledge, you can look at your change initiative through a “work culture” lens and thereby assess the impact the change will have on the way things get done in your organization.  This will undoubtedly up the complexity of your project, but it will provide you with invaluable insight.  This is where it gets interesting.