Culture. What is it really?

Culture is important. Culture eats strategy for breakfast*. Culture is a fad. Culture is nothing. Culture is everything.

What is culture?

When people ask what I do, my simplest answer is “I help companies with their organizational culture.” You’d think I’d have a pretty good answer to the inevitable follow-up of “what is culture?”, wouldn’t you?

The best I’ve come up with so far is, culture is everything. I’m pretty sure that’s not what people are looking for.

So I’m here to talk about what organizational culture is, but I’m not going to offer another definition or even tell you how your culture should be. (Well, maybe just a little bit). I am going to share some thoughts on why culture matters, and a model for understanding your organization through the lens of culture.


Here are some things I know about culture:

Culture is people.

It is ways of thinking, acting, seeing, and being in the world. It is collective realities created by people. It is a part of everything about how people live together and organize themselves together in the world.

Organizational culture is just culture.

Culture within an organization is not fundamentally different from human culture at large. Every organization is part of an existing culture and society. The organization has a unique character, but its roots are embedded in the place it came from. It reflects and replicates and evolves the parent culture, for better or worse.

Why does it matter?

Culture is people. People are your organization.

Talking about culture is really a call to see your company differently. To see it as a complex whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and to see people as the heart of it.

Culture is everything

Your organizational culture is how you do things. It’s also what you do. How you decide to do it. Who gets to decide. Why you do it. Who does it. Who doesn’t do it. It’s your business model, strategy, and execution. All of these things are already happening in your organization and if you want to do things better you have to be proactive about it. Just fixing things as they break isn’t the answer. The paradigm of culture offers a way forward.


A Cultural Model

Here is a model for understanding how culture emerges and shapes an organization. It is not a diagnostic tool to tell you what your culture is like. There are a lot of diagnostic frameworks out there, some more useful than others, but they aren’t really necessary. Culture is emergent and dynamic, and the best way to approach it is with iterative and forward-looking processes, not by analyzing and categorizing.

Rather, this model is intended to provide perspective on your organization — some context for understanding problems and understanding how to positively cultivate a more effective and resilient organization.


First, A Tree

Let’s start with this. Your organization is a tree. A tree is rooted in soil and grows upwards to the sun. We can’t see the roots but we know they are there, as well as how important the roots and soil are for the tree’s health. If you are planting a new fruit tree, you take care with planting it in a good spot, you might stake it to make sure it grow straight, give it water, food, and keep it pruned to grow healthy. You give it what it needs and the tree does the work of growing itself. If all goes well, eventually the tree grows fruit.


Second, Your Organization

The soil and air and sunshine are all part of the environment that your organization is born into. At the roots are Implicit Values — this includes all the baggage we bring with us as individuals to an organization, our own culture, our assumptions about the world, our personal values, our personalities and ways of doing things. While every individual carries these roots, those of the founding team and top leadership in a company will be the largest and most influential.

The tree grows up, and the organization emerges in visible practices in three key areas: Leadership & Authority, Systems, and People. Each layer emerges and builds on the one below it, adding in more visible elements, and feeding into the next layer above it. It’s not entirely linear — just like in a tree there are feedback loops up and down, but growth is upward, and what happens at the bottom will have more impact than what happens higher up the tree. It is the least visible parts that will have the most impact.

Power

Before leadership, though, comes Power. Human organization, fundamentally, is about organizing power. Who gets to decide? What is valued? Who is valued? Power here also includes the idea of privilege, and it manifests as both formal organizational power and informal social power. It may be distributed equally or not, but it is still there, and as your tree grows it will manifest in the culture in ways both visible and invisible. As a general rule, the more you have the harder it is to see.

Leadership & Authority

Leadership & Authority is the most direct expression of power, and includes:

  • Formal leadership (who it is and how it’s done)
  • Informal leadership and authority (who has influence, who gets included, who gets credit)
  • Management
  • Governance (reward & sanctions, resource allocation, targets & goals, employee ranking systems, conflict resolution, and policy enforcement.)

Systems

Systems further embed power into the operational aspects of the organization with:

  • Organizational structure
  • Physical space
  • Written policies
  • Process & procedures (day-to-day processes, coordination, communication, meetings)

Two important things to know:

  1. The organizational structure contains but is not the same as authority. Structure can just as easily obscure power as reveal it. “Flat” organizations can be rife with informal power dynamics that privilege some over others, while “hierarchical” organizations can have practices that distribute power and autonomy more evenly through the ranks.
  2. Written policies are not the same as the practice of governance and policy enforcement.

People

People are the last element of the trunk. This includes much of what is typically thought of as the culture — individual behavior, attitudes, relationships, interactions, and group dynamics.

The most important point here is this: As individuals we have autonomy and make conscious decisions, but as cultural beings our behavior, interactions, and relationships are also very much shaped by the systems, power structures, and implicit values that surround us. (And even though leadership is a lower level on the tree, leaders are also people who are shaped by the culture.) Humans are adaptable, and we will behave differently in different environments. The cultural work that happens here — such as group activities and fostering a sense of community — is important, but without the deeper elements of leadership and systems in alignment, people will eventually become disengaged and distrustful.

As cultural beings our behavior, interactions, and relationships are very much shaped by the systems, power structures, and implicit values that surround us.

Finally, The Tree Top

The leaves are the most visible aspect of the tree and of your culture, and they are outcomes of everything happening below. Stories are the ideas and narratives we have about who we are, individually and collectively. Stories are a creative expression of our culture, and include origin myths, hero stories, narratives about the past, and narratives about identities. “Who we are” and “How we do things” are stories. Within a company, your brand is also a kind of story.

Explicit Values include both the formal stated values of the company as well the espoused values of individuals. Essentially, if you ask a person what their values are, or what are the values of their group or team, the things they say are explicit values. The key is that explicit values are generally positive. Explicit values are also a kind of story — they are part of the narrative of who we imagine ourselves to be and who we want to be. They may overlap with implicit values, but they are not the same. Most individuals are aware that their personal values are to some extent aspirational— life is complicated and no one is able to perfectly act on their values all the time. But we don’t always extend this awareness to our organizations.

This is why so many corporate values initiatives fall flat — they are the equivalent of pasting paper leaves on the branches and expecting it to help the tree grow.

Stories and Explicit Values are a part of our culture, and they are “real” — they contain and reproduce the same DNA as in the tree roots. They are also part of how we replicate culture. But they represent our ideas and beliefs more than they represent our real actions and systems. They emerge at the furthest distance from the roots where our implicit values are shaping our reality (often even hiding that reality from us). This is why so many corporate values initiatives fall flat — they are the equivalent of pasting paper leaves on the branches and expecting it to help the tree grow.


What does this mean?

If you are growing an organization, what does this mean for you? I’ll explore more concrete strategies another time, but here are a few things I hope you can take away from this article:

Explicit values are an expression of culture, but not direct drivers of behavior or actions, at the individual or institutional level.

What we see and believe to be true about our culture is not always so. Formal corporate values are meaningless if they aren’t embodied in the leadership and systems of the organization. The most effective culture building strategies start at the bottom of the tree.

Leadership is about “how” leadership is done

And what implicit values are expressed in the practice of leadership and governance in the organization. The implicit values reflected in your actions will have more impact on the culture than the content of your words. Effective leadership requires positive engagement and modeling shared values.

Culture is collective

A resilient culture is balanced, dynamic, and not dependent on any one person at any given time. Optimizing for individual outputs or over-focusing on production metrics will not get you there. A holistic and human-centered approach will.

Culture is everything

From soil and roots to leaves and fruit. Change initiatives, culture building, and problem-solving anywhere in the organization should be about embedding new and better ways of doing things to foster resilience and growth as much as they are about fixing an issue at hand or achieving a specific outcome.


Finally, Two Recommendations

Diversify

The more diversity you have, especially in leadership, the larger and more diverse your root system will be. Diversity fosters resilience from the ground up.

Empower collective leadership

Distributing more power and authority throughout your organization will strengthen the base of your tree, and build stronger connections and feedback loops between people and leadership. Power here isn’t about power over other people, either. It’s about individuals being valued and having agency and ownership in the systems that affect them. Collective leadership is about balancing individual autonomy with shared purpose and accountability. If the space between leadership and people is more fluid, a more effective and resilient organization can emerge.


Align. Empower. Iterate.

Conclusion

If you want to build an effective, values-based culture, then you need embed your purpose and explicit values into your operations, and empower people to do good work. To grow a tree you have to meet it where it’s at and give it what it needs to grow. If you create your organization as a space where people are connected around a shared purpose and have what they need to flourish, then they’ll also accomplish wonderful things.


Tara Horn is Founder and Chief Culture Scientist at The Praxis Department, helping companies build more resilient, human, organizations.

Keep following for more on strategies to cultivate an effective and resilient workplace. (Including the role of hiring, which you may have noticed is missing from this tree).

*Maybe or maybe not a quote from Peter Drucker