What is Business Culture, Anyway?

What is Business Culture, Anyway?

One definition of workplace culture is “a set of basic assumptions that defines for us what to pay attention to, what things mean, how to react emotionally to what is going on, and what actions to take in various kinds of situations” (Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th ed., 2010:29). When we enter an organization, some of these basic assumptions are visible (differences in dress, whether phones are shut off during meetings) and others operate more invisibly (two key persons don’t speak directly to each other because of an unresolved conflict, you’re expected to take work home).

Sample scenario #1: Nathan moves from one company location to the other, and much to his surprise, the new plant is run much differently. He is told to “watch your back,” that “you’ll learn your place in the pecking order,” and “if you need help understanding whose butt to kiss, just let me know. The thing that puzzles Nathan is that the plant’s productivity is greater than the one he just left.

Sample scenario #2: Lucy was the administrative assistant to the founder of the company. For over thirty years, she has been a dedicated employee, although her computer skills have not kept pace, her office looks like a paper tornado passed through, and she seems to come and go as she pleases. The new HR manager is on a mission to improve accountability throughout the organization; however, she is told to “give Lucy a pass.”

Why will this help me at work? If you’re not aware of the underlying assumptions of the culture you’re working in, you may find that things happen that just don’t seem to make sense to you (e.g., promotions based on how much you work, not the quality of your work). Being able to delineate cultural attributes is the first step in changing them.

Why is this so difficult at times? Edgar Schein talks about how the longer someone has been in a particular organization, the harder it is for her to see the patterns of assumptions and behaviors—like asking the fish to describe the water. There are so many components to culture that it becomes important to focus on the elements that we want to bring into awareness and change, and there will be very different opinions and experiences around this.

Your frank self-assessment:

  • Think of where you work as if it were a country or a state—what elements make it different from where you’ve lived before?
  • What are some of the things that delight you or drive you crazy for lack of a rational explanation?
  • If you were truly and totally in charge, what would be the first three patterns that you would change?

My tips:

  • Keep in mind that there is no ideal or perfect culture. What adds real value for one environment may not be optimal for another.
  • If you’ve genuinely tried to “make work work” and it just isn’t happening, maybe it’s time to come to the conclusion that a given organizational culture is not a match. I truly valued the six years I spent in a large nonprofit, but in the end it was just too painfully slow to initiate and implement new business development for the way I wanted to work, so I moved on.
  • It can be helpful to examine the biases we hold about both workplace and national cultures. Working for a European company for three years certainly taught me a lot about their food, wine, and art, but their workplace culture was fundamentally different in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Action for traction:

  • If you work in an organization with more than one department, see if you can benevolently pick out some of the similarities and differences in the operational assumptions. For example, does one group have a “jeans Friday” while the other doesn’t? Is there a tendency to vote on decisions when consensus is taking too long, or is it deferred to the person in charge?
  • Think about what a cultural assessment of your group would look like. Do you think you could do that on your own, or would it take someone from the outside with an independent stance?
  • Design a strategic planning session, taking into account the optimal design, methodology, and outcomes that will serve you best.

Baked-in benefits:

  • You’ll have more tools to understand the complexities of work.
  • There will be a clearer sense of how you fit (or not).
  • You’ll be able to initiate dialogues that serve a larger purpose.

Excerpt From: Flip Brown. “Balanced Effectiveness at Work. How to Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor without Driving Yourself Nuts.”  Published by: Starr Farm Press