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Defining Organizational Culture for Decision Makers

If I were to ask you right now how to define organizational culture, could you do it in one sentence?

It’s hard to do for most individuals.The term “organizational culture” is tricky to define because it isn’t something concrete and tangible like a chair.

Even though every organization has a culture, the multitude of factors and influences that shape culture make defining it as hard as pinning down a cloud.

Too Many Fuzzy Definitions

There’s no general consensus on the best definition of organizational culture so you’ve probably heard it described a million ways.

The textbook definition looks something like this:

Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations.

But ask people you know how they define organizational culture and you might get answers like:

  • Culture is your brand. Culture is how an organization does things.
  • Culture is character.
  • Culture is the shared awareness of an organization.
  • Culture is the “glue” that holds an organization together.
  • Culture is the proper way to behave.
  • Culture is the personality of the organization.

The definitions for organizational culture are endless, and they’re mostly ambiguous which doesn’t make them useful to decision-makers.

A clear definition is essential since it’s impossible to tackle an issue if people can’t agree on what they’re even talking about.

Creating an Actionable Definition That Produces Results

When I first started my business Love To Appreciate Consulting, I needed a definition of organizational culture that would best serve my clients who were looking to improve their workplace culture.

I needed an ACTIONABLE definition.

I needed a RESULTS-ORIENTED definition.

After researching the topic heavily, the definition of organizational culture that I use with my clients allows them to identify it, measure it, and make strategic decisions about how to shape it or improve it.

Organizational Culture Defined

Organizational culture is a pattern of BEHAVIORS influenced by shared assumptions, values, and beliefs.

Culture defines how people behave, what they do and what they say, in front of others and when they are alone.

Behaviors are observable, which means they can be seen by others, and they can be quantified.

Focusing on Behaviors

Most importantly, a focus on behaviors allows any organization to actively manage its culture.

For example, giant online shoe retailer Zappos is known worldwide for its culture of delivering happiness to customers and employees. How does it measure its culture of happiness? It looks at behaviors. 

Zappos uses a scorecard in its call center to track the personal and emotional connections employees make with customers. It also counts the number of thank you cards and cookies employees send to customers.

As another example, a company that wants to instill a culture of transparency needs to first identify the behaviors it wants to see that reflect open and honest communication. After that, decisions can be made on how to best cultivate those behaviors among its employees.

Changing a culture is never easy, but it can be successfully accomplished when the definition of organizational culture is crystal clear to everyone involved and it’s measurable.

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