What Is Organisational Culture?

January 16, 2023

by John O. Burdett

If the term never passed the CEO’s lips your organisation’s culture would still define what’s possible. And it will change … whether you want it to or not.

Culture Is Real

Tony Hsieh, Zappos’s Founder, preached that an organisation’s number one priority is culture. Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, says, “It doesn’t matter how good your original product is, if you can’t build a great company around it, the product won’t endure.” When Satya Nadella took over as CEO at Microsoft, in 2014, he told employees that his highest priority was the company’s culture. He refers to culture as “the soul” of the organisation.

For a great organisation, culture isn’t an abstract or vague concept … it’s real … it speaks to people. It’s not a competitive advantage … it’s a competitive imperative.

Culture Is a Complex Word

The first official mention of ‘culture’, in English, was in 1430 when the Oxford English dictionary stated that it meant “cultivation.” Somewhere along the line culture stopped being about tilling the soil. Instead, it became synonymous with “the arts:” music, poetry, dance, opera, literature, painting and the like. Tilling the intellect!

In a different guise, culture distinguishes one tribe from another. Think about the elite education, polished accent, prescribed dress and required etiquette of the English upper class (behaviour considered by that particular tribe to be the very definition of being “cultured”); the tattoos and street argot of an LA street gang; the shirts, scarfs and chants of Liverpool soccer supporters; and/or the conflict resolution rituals of the Yanomami, one of the most primitive and remote indigenous tribes of Amazonia. Fertilising the closed mind!

In yet one more form of expression, culture describes the habits, values, norms, ethos, organisation and identity of a community who work together in pursuit of a common purpose. The tribe is about exclusion; everyone has to look and act in the same way. Taken to its extreme the tribe emerges as a cult. The psychological polar opposite is a community built on inclusion, shared values and a respect for individual difference. If you want things to stay the same … act as if you are part of the tribe (cooperation, consensus, build walls). The tribe is more prevalent than you might at first think: the sales tribe, the manufacturing tribe, the finance tribe. If you recognise and embrace the need for change, think and behave as if you were part of a community (collaboration, trust, sharing). Internal tribes at war with each other are the best thing the competition has going for it. Ploughing a new furrow!

Culture Defines What’s Possible

Culture isn’t a plaque in reception, a consulting exercise or a memo to all employees. It isn’t limited to the organisation’s values, exclusively the province of HR, a repackaged engagement survey or something you “do” and then forget about until this time next year. If the term never passed the CEO’s lips your culture would still define what’s possible. And it will change … whether you want it to or not. As a business, you are your culture. It’s the essence of who you are. The good news is it’s the one thing the competition can’t usurp.

Culture within a business setting is a container for diversity. Here, one is faced with the law of requisite variety. For a system to sustain itself, it needs at least as much internal variety as exists in the environment in which it sits (context). If you look around your organisation (including, especially the Board) or team and, for the most part, those involved all look and sound the same, know that you are ill-equipped for a world where ideas are the lifeblood of tomorrow’s success.

The challenge culture presents is that it is the behavioural equivalent of the water in a goldfish bowl. We mostly don’t know that it’s there but it, nevertheless, sustains life. Have you ever thought how remarkable it is that at the end of the day hundreds, even tens of thousands, of employees go home and, without thinking about it, are able to pick up exactly where they left off the next morning? That’s culture!

To survive is to adapt. “Are you managing your culture?”

This article is an extract from “The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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