Culture is a Process, Not a Series of Checkboxes

Credit: John Schultz (Flickr)

What we talk about when we talk about organizational culture are often concepts or things like shared experiences, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, and purpose. While these things are crucial to culture, we cannot argue that the simple sum of these things make up org culture.

We also cannot argue that the mere presence of these things make for a good organizational culture. You can be gainfully employed at a company that has lots of meaning and purpose, shared beliefs and values (e.g., a non-profit that does clean water projects in impoverished countries) and everyone there could have devoted their lives to this mission. It’s a good start, but these things alone don’t guarantee a good culture.

Mohawks, aggressive music, and anti-establishment beliefs (source)

These anti-definitions apply to all other types of culture, including the arts, language, national traditions, and ideologies. These, like organizational culture, are not the sum of their parts. Languages aren’t merely words, sentences, and grammar. Punk culture is not just mohawks, aggressive music, and anti-establishment beliefs. Similarly, we might argue organizational culture is not a collection of false idols to be worshipped and sacrificed to.

Rather than focusing on culture as a collection of outcomes or things, it might serve us better to start thinking about culture as a process.

Culture as a process isn’t a new idea, it’s the driving force behind process art, which puts an emphasis on the creation and development of art, not the objet d’art. Under this philosophy, paintings, sculptures, poems are merely the by-products of art. The real art actually lies in the process of creating it.

But what is it?

Here’s cultural anthropologist Robert F. Murphy’s fantastic definition of culture, emphasis mine:

Culture means the total body of tradition borne by a society and transmitted from generation to generation. It thus refers to (note: not is) the norms, values, standards by which people act, and it includes the ways distinctive in each society of ordering the world and rendering it intelligible. Culture is…a set of mechanisms for survival, but it provides us also with a definition of reality. It is the matrix into which we are born, it is the anvil upon which our persons and destinies are forged. †

If we look at organizational culture as a process, then it’s really about how we create and persist the behaviors that order the world and make it intelligible, not the values and standards themselves. Murphy’s definition requires that cultures:

  1. communicate to make ourselves intelligible to each other;
  2. define our realities and forge our destinies; and,
  3. transmit and replicate these traditions for the survival of culture

Culture as process is the continuous act of communicating, forging, and replicating — a feedback loop that we call learn, act, repeat.

In my last blog, I wrote the biggest score differences between Top 10% and Bottom 10% engaged companies are communications issues. But on second thought, they are actually disruptors of the learn, act, repeat feedback loop:

In context: people in an organization that isn’t properly communicating do not learn from each other. Misdirection of resources and inadequately demonstrating the importance of people shows imprudent action. Feeling unable to make a positive difference keeps people from trying something again or reaching out to help others.

These actions stifle the transmission of culture, confound communication, and inconsistently define reality, resulting in the company effectively getting in its own way.

If we stop perceiving organizational culture as a set of outcomes (the objet d’art), it frees us from seeing culture as a set of targets to hit. The focus moves away from providing the most innovative perks, mandating unattainable values, and enforcing rigid hierarchies in an attempt to invoke culture. Because culture is already a “happening” and culture as a process will always outlast the by-products.

Consequently, once we think of culture as a process, we can start measuring the success of our organizational cultures by how much our organizational cultures allow and encourage people to learn, act, and repeat. Or in cultural anthropology terms, how well your people communicate, define and forge their destinies, and that they choose to transmit and replicate what they do.

If we look at the top drivers of engagement in our 2016 benchmark, they all reflect this desire to communicate intelligibly (Impact and Honesty), forge one’s own reality and destiny (Learning and Development), and the capacity to share confidence, motivation, and a sense of importance with each other (Leadership).

Top three factors of Engagement and their relative influence

In our latest (New Tech) benchmark, L&D came in as the most important driver of Engagement. But every year, the top Engagement drivers consistently cycle amongst these same factors. For example, in 2012, the data showed that Leadership was the most important factor, with L&D coming in second. This reinforces their importance over tangible outcomes such as compensation or perks — factors that have never appeared in the top half of Engagement drivers. The data overwhelmingly favors the how of culture, not the what.

Rather than seeing culture as a good vs bad proposition, perhaps the better measure of culture is the amount of bandwidth (mental, physical, organizational, etc.) our people have to communicate intelligibly, forge, and transmit. If the goal is to promote a healthy culture, look for ways to increase this bandwidth, remove blockers that hinder its flow, and be an active participant in encouraging behaviors that people are proud to pass on.

From this perspective, growing culture might require us to ask questions such as:

  • How are we facilitating better, more intelligible communication and understanding across the organization?
  • What is being done to help people feel more in control of what they do here?
  • Are we allowing and encouraging behaviors and values that people want to repeat and share with others — so that others continue to repeat and share?
“I always knew I was a race car driver, they just kept putting me in f-cked up cars”

Ultimately, it is impossible to argue that encouraging and developing an environment that promotes these things has a “bad” culture, because these processes are culture. And perhaps not surprisingly, the companies that do this best are also the most engaged.

While we do advocate tracking employee engagement and related metrics, it’s important to not miss the forest for the trees. Focus on amplifying the process of culture by setting up an environment where your people can have the bandwidth and space they need to grow, maintain, and spread the culture around.

After all, a culture of one is nothing but a personality.

† Murphy, Robert. Culture and Social Anthropology: An Overture. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986


Hyon S Chu prefers processed cheese over checkboxed cheese.

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