When we talk about an organization’sculture, what do we mean? The term “culture”, like “engagement” and “learning”, is in danger of losing its meaning as people use it arbitrarily to describe Delphi everything about organizations. If we say we want to change an organization’s culture, we need to be very clear about what it is we are seeking to change and how we will know when that happens. Otherwise, confusion will become a barrier to meaningful improvement.

Merrian-Webster lists nine different definitions of “culture”:

  1. the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education
  2. expert care and training
  3. enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
  4. acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
  5. the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
  6. the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time
  7. the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization 
  8. the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic 
  9. the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also : a product of such cultivation

These definitions have been modified by thought-leaders to explain the culture of organizations. Here are some examples of how "culture" has been used in relation to organizations.

Vala Afshar, in an interview for MIT Sloan Management Review said, “I guess the simplest definition of culture is what happens when the manager leaves the room. That’s when you can feel and sense — in the absence of authority — whether you are aligned with the company’s core values and guiding principles.”

Similarly, in his book Flat Army, Dan Pontefract, says this about culture: “An organization’s culture is defined by the manner in which employees are treated by their direct leader.”

For Kevin Eikenberry culture is:

    • How we do things around here.
    • The stories we are told.
    • The behaviors that get you promoted.
    • The values the organization lives by.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin, defines culture in this way:

Culture is who we are. It’s essentially the personality of our company — who we are and who we aspire to be…our culture has five dimensions: transformation, integrity, collaboration, humor and results. And there are six values: members first; relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; and act like an owner.

My preference is for Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture. Taking the perspective of an anthropologist, he says that culture has three levels: (1) the deep underlying beliefs and assumptions that are often difficult for insiders to articulate; (2) the values and principles that structure action; and (3) the symbols and artifacts that are visible on the surface for all to see. 

Regardless of which definition you choose, it's clear that pleasant surroundings, annual picnics, and employee-of-the-month programs, although important, are not enough to create a culture that is aligned with innovation and high performance. That kind of culture is based on deeply held values and principles that are played out in the leadership and operational practices of individuals and teams.