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Revisiting the Meaning of Org Culture in the Era of COVID


Can you remember a discussion in which everyone at your firm agreed to a shared definition of the meaning of organizational culture upfront? I’m guessing the answer to that question is “no.”

Aug 13th 2020
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For most of us, it’s not hard to remember a conversation (or many) about organizational culture. Some of those conversations may have begun with a reference to the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

I’m pretty sure that in all the discussions we’ve been having about organizational culture at our firms, we’re all talking about something different. For some, organizational culture means celebrations and rituals. For others, culture is defined by where a firm falls on the spectrum from teamwork to competition orientation.

Still, others consider culture to be a ranking of firm’s priorities between employees, clients and external stakeholders. This might explain why it is so incredibly difficult to construct a meaningful and effective plan of action around org culture. If what I call “red” you call “blue,” then we’re going to have a difficult time formulating a plan to get purple.

A Shared Definition

That said, it is extremely difficult to come up with a shared definition of “organization culture” at your firm that is sufficiently broad enough to capture everything relevant and meaningful, but isn’t also the longest run-on sentence in history. Ultimately, the best definition of organizational culture is entirely dependent on what you’re doing with it.

In a recent piece about the forced “unfreezing” of organizations due to the coronavirus, I relied on a definition of organizational culture from Deal and Kennedy, “The way things get done around here.” Now that definition was awesome because it was seven words and it said a ton, thereby allowing me to get on to the broader points I was trying to make about the uniqueness of the “unfreezing.” 

But if we’re trying to do the type of deep dive into organizational culture necessary to create a plan to effectuate meaningful change, “The way things get done around here,” just isn’t going to cut it. Because “the way things get done around here” covers, well, everything.


And if we’re going to talk about everything, we might as well start with vision. After all, vision is as big a determinant of motivation and engagement as one can find. Where is your firm headed?

Even if you can come up with a terrific answer quickly and easily, that doesn’t mean that everyone else will answer the same way. Towards that end, when’s the last time you asked your staff about the firm’s vision?

Shared Meanings and Beliefs

Of course, asking every member of an organization to describe the firm’s vision may not be terribly practical, meaning we may have to rely on assumptions, another major component germane to our topic. What goes unsaid but is understood by all in your organization?

Towards that end, what are the shared meanings and beliefs that run through the employee base as well? Does “organizational success” mean the same thing to everyone?

What do people believe are the guiding principles on which they can rely when making decisions about how to perform their jobs? When you finish answering, you can probably predict my next question: “How do you know they think that?”

Group Norms

Codes of conduct established by the group – or group norms -- can potentially provide some clarity, as they are very powerful influences on behavior and work expectations. But group norms happen gradually and informally and there are lots of opportunities for them to deviate from what was intended.

For example, the intended culture of a firm may be one of innovation and risk-taking, but it’s not too hard for a group norm of risk aversion to develop. This could be due to an untold number of factors, ranging from personalities to circumstances. And once habits and mental models form, it is very difficult to change them.

Of course, there are many other factors that go a long way to determining “how things get done around here” include:

  • Organizational Structure
  • Organizational Justice (specifically including fairness of rewards and procedural consistency)
  • Commitment to Standards/People/Clients/Team Orientations
  • Incentives
  • Managerial Practice

It Takes Time

Now, if all of this seems overwhelming, that’s good, because it means you get it. If you’re looking for a lightweight, quick fix to address your organizational culture, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news – it’s not going to happen. Culture change cannot be bound by time or task.

In fact, some people argue that there is no finish line and organizational culture gets reinforced or re-made every single day. But that doesn’t mean addressing your firm’s organizational culture isn’t worth doing. Consider how much time you devote to strategy. What if you devoted half of that time to re-creating your culture?  After all, they say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

How might one go about that? It starts with measurement. Structure a representative focus group of your employee base and ask them to identify the espoused values and shared assumptions they hold. This will at least let you know whether everyone is talking about the same thing.

But you’re not home yet, because shared assumptions and espoused values exist only in our minds. To understand what’s real, you have to look at cultural artifacts, the evidence of the physical manifestations of the culture. Sometimes they stand in direct opposition to espoused values.

For example, a firm may say it values and prioritizes work-life. But the number of weekend emails sent by employees tells a very different story. So, whenever you find artifacts in your firm that are misaligned to values and assumptions, you know what work you have to do.

I believe one can make a very compelling case for the huge importance of org culture (and the requisite effort and attention it deserves) even during the best of times. But during the era of COVID, I think it’s pretty clear that culture is far more important than usual.

Final Thoughts

As people adjust to new realities (remote or not), the engrained culture from which they emerged will do more to determine how people adapt than anything else. The way things used to get done will dictate how they get done moving forward, albeit under new constraints. And that culture will also have an enormous impact on how people embrace the new challenges they face and guidance they receive.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to do anything about that now. But fortunately, there has never been a better time to start than right now. That’s not only a catchy phrase – it is literally true.

The immense change wrought by COVID has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the culture in our firms from scratch, intentionally and purposefully. And what we start to build now will be easier to track, nurture and correct as we go.

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