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Basic Business Cents: Understand your organizational culture

There are two dominant forces that impact the actions of the organization-leadership and culture. Much has been written on leadership but not so much on culture.

Do you really understand the culture of your organization and how it impacts your performance? Organizational culture refers to the overriding atmosphere, unwritten rules, and operational structure that characterize day-to-day behavior and activities in the workplace. It refers to the way in which members of an organization think, feel, behave, and deal with each other. It is frequently independent of, and sometimes counter to, officially stated or published company policies and philosophies.

Factors that impact culture can be divided into three categories: Climate, Rules, and Structure.

Climate is formed by the social-psychological surroundings in which people operate. It involves the individual perceptions people have about attitudes toward their work environment and satisfaction in their work. For example, how much trust, anger, fear, pride, or commitment people perceive with respect to their role or their teamwork, their boss, the organization, etc.

Some factors that influence culture are dress and language norms, physical layout of the workplace balance of power in management/employee relationships and amount and quality of work done. Culture may ostracize those who diverge from the norm.

Rules are the formal and informal norms that guide behavior. Formal rules of the organization may specify one kind of behavior, while the actual behavior of people indicates that an informal rule is what really guides day-to-day behavior. Some informal rules are so ingrained that they materialize in unconscious responses. Some informal rules may run counter to the organization's stated vision, purpose, and values.

Structure is the way the organization is designed through its hierarchical (or other) composition. It includes the number of levels, size of departments, responsibilities, and array of functions. Structures typically generate certain sets of strengths and weaknesses, e.g., the specific roles people play in a bureaucracy makes some behavior highly predictable, but the same strength can create weakness when it comes to encouraging invention and innovation.

Culture is formed in an organization from the values of the founder, the behavior exhibited by upper management and experience with co-workers. It is learned and enforced by formal and informal actions. Formal actions include recognition of employees by promotions and verbal encouragement or punishment as reprimands, layoffs, and firing. Informal actions include verbal reinforcement through confrontations, explicit directions, teasing, myths, and stories. Nonverbal reinforcements include nonverbal expression, facial expressions, body language, physical and psychological stress, and isolation.

Newcomers to the organization react to their first encounter with the organizational culture with excitement, frustration, anger, depression, adaptation, or separation. Some may give the appearance of compliance or denial of pressure with an attitude of "this too shall pass." The components of culture are typically established over many years and tend to be change-resistant.

Culture and leadership both are powerful influences on the performance of the organization. The two key roles of leadership are to ensure a clear vision of the direction and goals that are embraced by all employees and to ensure the culture is in sync with the vision.

No one ever said leadership was easy, but the alignment of culture and direction are critical to the long-term success of the organization. The first step is to have open, honest dialog with individual employees. Leaders then must examine their beliefs and models and be open to better ways. They must forge mutual trust and respect by demonstrating trustworthiness, empathy, and genuineness. They need to articulate a shared vision and create opportunities for people to become involved. They must model behavior of the new culture. To change culture, lead the way.