Eight Elements of Culture

For most, the definition of culture is thought of as fairly nebulous and subjective, but for Andrew Brown, author of Organizational Culture, Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes, creators of the Cultural Web, culture comprises a few core elements: artifacts, stories, rituals, heroes, symbols, beliefs, attitudes and values.


Artifacts are physical items found to have particular symbolism for a company. This could include an early product line or the napkin that comprised the original idea for the company. Artifacts remind us of things created from an earlier time.


Culture is often disseminated through stories about past events and people. These stories could be true or elaborations on a nugget of truth. The story might be of heroism or just plain luck. One of my favorite examples of both is when CEO of FedEx gambled the last $5,000 of the company’s money to save the entire business.


Rituals are the repeated actions that your company takes. These actions might be centered around ceremonies such as a promotion or a retirement. They may also be associated with employee celebrations such as the release of a new product or the closing of a large sale, or they might be company-wide like the annual holiday party. Whatever the the case may be, the predictability of the rituals and the depth of their meaning combine to keep culture strong.


Heroes are the folks who others look to emulate. These folks could be anyone throughout the organization, from the founders to new grads. A hero might be a customer success representative who went out of his or her way to delight a customer or the programmer who spent a little extra time to make the latest release contain one fewer bug. These people symbolize and teach others the ideal behaviors and norms of culture.


Cultural symbols can be found throughout an organization, from how people greet one another to the clothes each person wears. Symbols can indicate status and trigger certain behaviors. A military uniform is full of symbols. It tells others who salutes first and the importance of the person wearing it. An office’s decor is also filled with symbols. The style of furniture, items hung and even the color of the walls all contribute to telling everyone more about the people who inhabit it.


Organizations will often have shared beliefs. These beliefs unify the group’s understanding of the world and provide a foundation for action. This can smooth out communication between subgroups but can also become a blinder if not checked.


Is your organization laid back, rigid, direct or political? Attitudes are the external manifestations of underlying beliefs that people use to signal to others said beliefs. How do people within your organization treat one another? Are people open to change and new ideas or is there a rigorous hierarchy that dictates the attitudes of individuals?


Values are the rules that everyone agrees to abide by within the group, and these can be seen throughout all of the other elements of culture. Cultural values shouldn’t just be a list that is framed sitting next to the bathrooms; they should lived and used to make decisions.

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