What is culture?

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

It is rather surprising that I managed to get away with publishing this blog for more than 5 years now while never providing my own definition of culture. I’ve shared Laloux/Wilber’s definition of culture, Horowitz’s, and I’m sure I’ve touched upon it indirectly in countless other posts but never explicitly spelled out mine.  

I’ve formulated, or perhaps more accurately, synthesized, my own definition about three years ago. But only recently, when responding to a different post on this topic, I realized that I haven’t shared it outside of the organization I was part of at the time (AltSchool). 

So here goes. It is influenced mostly by the Laloux definition, and Schein’s (which likely influenced Horowitz’s as well) and consists of three interacting elements: 

“Culture is our shared set of beliefs and mindsets, reflected through our behaviors and supported by our organizational systems (processes, protocols, etc.)”

At the end of the day, culture is epitomized in the way we behave. However, our behavior is shaped by an internal source, our beliefs and mindsets, and an external source, the organizational systems in which we operate. It is important to note that the relationship between these elements is not as one-directional as I make it sound, and there are secondary effects through which organizational systems shape beliefs and mindsets, for example. 

There are no “good cultures” and “bad cultures”. Every culture has its use and may be optimal to a certain group of people aiming to accomplish a certain purpose together. What sets apart strong cultures from weak cultures is the degree to which these elements are honest, clear and in alignment/congruence with one another. 

One of the most common mistakes that organizations make is focusing on defining the first element, beliefs and mindsets, often referred to as values or principles and ignoring the other two. It’s definitely a mistake that I’ve made as well. I’ve written extensively about a process for formulating values or core principles, and I’ll be the first to admit that it muddies the water a bit in distinguishing between the elements, since it was written before I developed this definition. Yet if we look at the 10 core principles that most organizations tend to converge on a subset of, once you peel off the marketing-speak, it becomes a little easier to see why values or principles are not enough. 

Mission-orientation, customer focus, risk-taking/creativity, ownership, transparency, humility/learning, simplicity, excellence, tenacity/grit, and speed are not things that have a clear, descriptive and observable definition. This creates a lot of room for misinterpretation and as a result, misalignment, in both directions: when I’m taking these principles and translate them to the behaviors that I believe reflect them, and when others see my behaviors and translate them to the underlying principles that they believe I may hold. 

In addition, our formal and informal organizational systems, processes such as hiring, firing, promoting, etc. and practices such as the way we run meetings or make decisions, explicitly and implicitly define a set of behaviors that are encouraged/discouraged. Without careful design, those behaviors may or may not be aligned with the behaviors and, in turn, beliefs and mindsets that we want to encourage/discourage. So let’s put in the extra effort to make sure that they do. 

What is culture?

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