Man looking at artwork exhibition

Culture isn’t a thing

A closer look at organisational performance

Written by Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Man looking at artwork exhibition

AFL Hall of Fame coach and player Leigh Matthews says, “Culture is the thing we blame when we don’t really know what’s going on”.

In contrast, senior leaders can often be heard saying such things as, “Our success is due to a fabulous culture we have built up over many years” or alternatively “Our culture is terrible and it is dragging down our performance in all customer facing roles”.

Who is correct? Is Leigh Matthews wrong for dismissing the power of this pillar of organisational thinking or are the senior leaders just speaking meaningless dribble to explain the annual performance?

What is culture?

Good luck finding a commonly agreed definition of culture. Perhaps the closest is that culture is “the way we do things around here”.

More specifically, culture is a set of agreed or commonly displayed behaviours that contribute to the success or failure of the organisation.

Alternatively, culture is the combination of the unwritten ground rules, the unspoken values or the “white space” between what is said and what is done.

Each of these definitions is nebulous and culture is hard to describe in concrete terms that can easily be understood by everyone in the organisation.

Who is your best/worst coworker?

One interesting way to unpack what your own organisation means by culture is to consider which of your coworkers best embodies the behaviours you admire. Similarly, which of your coworkers least embodies the behaviours you admire?

This is a surprisingly simple activity. Those coworkers who are quick to help others, are positive, open to change and customer centric are easily recognised. Equally recognisable are the self-centred, aloof and rigid employees.

Taking the time to capture the values, attitudes and behaviours of the best coworker can be a useful starting point to define the culture you want.

Also interesting during this activity is how often members of the executive team are mentioned amongst the best coworkers. This will signal the extent to which the executives are modelling the way and displaying the behaviours most admired by the organisation.

Does every organisation have at least two cultures?

Might it be possible that organisations have more than one culture? These could look like subcultures based on the work done, such as the difference between the culture in HR vs a laboratory.

Subcultures could also be driven by other dimensions such as the leadership style, the cultural make-up of the team and the age profile.

A more cynical perspective suggests there is a visible culture and a real, often hidden culture.

Unfortunately, the visible culture is the one most often referenced by senior staff because they are typically blind to the hidden culture that drives day-to-day decisions by the rest of the staff.

An example of this blind spot is when senior staff believe their staff feel comfortable raising issues and having difficult conversations, when in reality staff do not feel psychologically safe and therefore withhold their input.

Time for some deeper conversations

The possibility that organisations have multiple cultures does open a pathway to greater understanding of the concept.

Reflecting on the behaviours that make up these cultures can create deeper conversations on the values, attitudes and behaviours that the organisation wants to reinforce and recognise.

Numerous, micro-conversations will guide the actions of new and experienced employees. If these conversations can be maintained, they will help the organisation adapt to changing circumstances in both the internal and external environment.

Most importantly, these conversations will reduce the likelihood of staff using the word “culture”, in a lazy fashion, to capture the full extent of the intangible actions and moods.