Monday, 2 May 2011

Culture Shock: Why Cultivating Organizational Culture is Critical for Success

Just like every person is unique, every organization too has its own distinct “personality.” The set of behavioral norms, traditions, styles, and ways of working all create an organization’s culture. Organizational culture is important in promoting a cohesive, supportive, and productive work environment.
What is organizational culture?
Generally, organizational culture is described as the combination of norms, values, and behaviors that employees at an organization share. In common terms, it is “the way things work around here.”

Organizations develop a culture based on their size, their history, their mission, their leadership, and other things. An investment banking company may develop a highly rigorous, hierarchical, and aggressive culture due to the nature of its competitive, profit-seeking work. A new art museum might be a much more ‘flat,’ or less hierarchical in terms of authority and supervision, and much more laid-back. Call centers tend to be more individualistic, with each individual focusing on his or her work, while an environmental action organization aiming to clean up a river more team-oriented.

Even seemingly similar institutions may have vastly different cultures. Take two hospitals in India. One is newly built, modern and highly technically advanced, well-resourced, in the middle of one of the fastest growing cities in the world. The other is a 90-year-old health facility in one of the poorest states of India, run by Christian missionaries. Both provide similar healthcare services, but the atmosphere, style, type of employees, and methods will be entirely different. Neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ both of have just developed unique cultures based on the resources, history, and needs of the community.

Culture and its Role in a Healthy Organization
Organizational culture plays a very important role in building a strong, cohesive, productive institution. Consider the following analogies:

An organization is like a…

Family: Parents signal to their children norms and values. So too does organizational culture inform employees what they value. Rural development organizations may cultivate a sense of service, humility, and giving of owns time and money. Religious groups may have a strong sense of purpose, devotion, and piety in its work. Developing strong organizational values will help ensure employees display those values important to you and your organization.

Nation: Just as a country develops, national holidays, cuisine, anthem, flag, and other customs, an organization develops its own tradition. These serve as important signals to the citizens, or in our case, employees, its own unique aspects and history. This helps people involved feel included, that they belong, and thus loyal to the organization they are serving.

Peer Group: Like a secondary school class, an organization signals to its employees appropriate work behavior. A potential client arriving for a meeting at a bank with a strong sense of professionalism mayimmediately notice that staff are well-dressed, serious, and focused. Similarly, a new teacher arriving for her first day at a school may quickly realize that her fellow colleagues are all extremely engaged and interactive with their classes, sending her the message of how that school expects her to interact with her class as well. Like a peer group, an organization with a clear sense of norms and acceptable behavior will send a straightforward message to new employees and potential clients of “this is who we are.”

In short, organizations with strong organizer cultures:
  • Attract more likeminded talent who will thrive at their work. (“This organization may pay less, but their values match with mine, which is important to me”)
  • Increase retention because employees feel they are a part of something. (“This place feels like family to me, I could never leave.”)
  • Improve their effectiveness, due to a stronger sense of cohesion among employees. (“This project is tough, but I know with my teammates we can accomplish our goal.”)
  • Display to their clients, donors, and the community the values it holds important, such as caring, giving back, dedication, or high quality of work. (“I definitely want to make my donation to this organization- they put thoughts into action with how dedicated their employees are!”)
  • Endure hardships and ‘bounce back’ from difficult times more effectively, due to higher morale and group cohesion. (“Come on, guys, we know we can do this, let’s get back on our feet!”)

Okay, I get it. Culture is improves morale, productivity, and overall success. How do I develop one?
Developing an organizational culture is not a one-step process. It requires multiple facets to truly create an entire way of thinking and behaving. Some of these can include:
  • The highest levels of leadership demonstrating the norms and behaviors desired in employees.
  • Including ‘orientation’ components to new employee training, including sharing with them appropriate behavior,
  • Developing traditions, such as an annual picnic, prayer each morning, or employee-of-the-month awards, which match the kind of organization you want to be.
  • Ensuring policies reflect with values. For example, if your organization provides healthcare services to poor expectant mothers in your community, does your organization have a good maternity leave policy for its employees?
  • Check for how well a potential new employee will fit in with the organization. Ask him or her questions about their values and ways of working. Are they a team player? Are they motivated by a strong sense of giving back to the community? Pick questions which make sense given your own organization’s unique culture.

People Equity provides consulting services to organizations and companies seeking to promote organizational culture in their institutions. Email us at for more information.