Understanding the culture of organizations is essential for anyone who wants to succeed, and in particular for anyone that wants to guide change.
There are frameworks and models that can help you to understand the culture of organizations in broad strokes. What these essentially do is categorize and structure the broad-brushed behaviour of like organizations. From this we get cultures that are entrepreneurial, competitive, hierarchical, risk-averse or obsessed with full-on avoidance.
That’s useful as far as it goes. But when we need to understand how things work at a more granular level, we need to turn our attention elsewhere. And there is nothing that better helps in understanding a culture of an organization than identifying the rules of how things work there.
I have often used an understanding of “this is the way things work around here” as a proxy for being able to read a culture because at its essence, culture is the repeated habits that we perform collectively within a specific group. In any given tribe of people (whether that is an organization, a division, a department, a team or the colleagues we have coffee with every morning) there are rituals that are performed.
In fact, this is true of any grouping of people. It’s not just organizational, it is social. Any group of which we find ourselves a member has habits and routines. That can be the church we belong to, the friends we hang out with, the volunteer chapter we give our time to or the family we have dinner with every Sunday. Each unit has its rituals, its routines and its habits.
In fact, the rituals, routines and habits are in many instances what attracts us to groups in the first place. We find comfort, meaning, identity or some other pay-off in how the group interacts. Because of that value, we strive to become a member. And once a member, we reinforce and regulate the behaviours that we most care about (whether policing other people that are part of the tribe, or screening others that want to join).
The essence of what drives all of those behaviours? The rules that exist in how we present ourselves, function, interact and behave.
One of the earliest examples of this was the social groups we interacted with in school. The cool kids. The rebels. The comedians. The party animals. The nerds. The social misfits. When you look at how these groups function, the greatest dependency is “to what extent to you fit in?” In other words, do you behave and act like other members of the group?
I moved around an extraordinary amount as a child (and no, I wasn’t an army brat; I was an insurance brat). And I got to watch—and experience—this behaviour many times as I relocated from community to community and school to school. When a new kid shows up, the routine is pretty standard: feel them out, figure out what group they belong in, and nudge them in that direction. (The last time this happened, the narrative was “figure out what group you belong in, and prove it” but that’s a whole different situation with very different underlying dynamic, and I digress).
The point being that—from our earliest interactions—we form social groups based on similarities. We find commonalities and latch on to them. What we have in common varies—it can be culture, interests, behaviours, musical appetites or academic aptitude. But the things that bring us together are the things that we essentially have in common.
What reinforces and sustains those groups, however, is consistencies in behaviour. We develop modes of operation. We build routines of interaction. We create short-hand means of communication. We act similarly. We dress similarly. And we become a tribe. We build on the things that define us, and distinguish the factors that separate us from them.
All of these behaviours are rule-based. Which isn’t to say that they are deliberately or explicitly codified. The acts of affiliation and emulation mean that we learn what fits and what doesn’t. We recognize when one of the group starts acting differently, dressing differently or exploring different interests. The group response might be to adapt and evolve, to encourage or admonish, or to eject and ostracize.
What all of that means is that we become aware of rules and how they operate at an early age. And we continue to identify, interpret and operate within rulesets for the rest of our lives.
How those rules show up is one of the most interesting things in how organizations function. As we learn how things work, we interpret new expectations and codify new practices. We figure out how to fit in. We identify the behaviour that is expected and rewarded, and the behaviour that is discouraged and diminished. We do more of what gets us appreciated, and less of what runs us afoul of others.
The most obvious of rules are the ones that are written down. That theoretically starts with the mission, vision and values of the organization. Understanding why the organization exists, where it is trying to go and the principles of how it operates is the presumed essence of how the rest of strategy gets defined.
From there, we learn the policies that are present. These are more pragmatic, in that they define the essentials of what the organization will and won’t do. Policies define the clients an organization seeks, and the ones that it discourages. They articulate the kind of work that is valued, and how that work should be delivered, at least in relatively broad terms. In particular, policies define the actions the organization will take or refuse in delivering that work.
After policies, we have processes and procedures. This is where we get to the granular level of defining how things actually happen. There are processes for bringing new clients on board. There are processes for helping less desired clients to seek services elsewhere. And there are processes for figuring out how to deliver the services the organization is in the business of providing (and reacting and recovering from when mistakes get made). These are the real ground rules for how things happen (at least formally).
The most important word in the preceding three paragraphs is “theoretically.” On paper, principle, policy and process define how organizations function. In reality, the circumstances are often… different. How different is where it starts to depend.
Going back to the broad brush-strokes of culture, some organizations are exceptionally hierarchical, formal and consistent. What that means is that how they operate pretty much conforms to what it says on the tin. Processes get followed, consistency and conformance is valued, and deviations are actively discouraged. Rigidity of operations and formality of approach are the dimensions of organization that are most cared about, and therefore most reinforced.
Other organizations (you know who you are) are less consistent, formal, rigid or precise. There is what we say, and then there is what we do. And what we do is what works (and what we say is what the executives or auditors profess to care about, but that goes largely ignored and unpracticed in actuality).
What gets operationalized here are the informal rules. The conventions. What is understood to be done. What is expected—or discouraged—about how we interact with clients or each other.
A case study in this is an organization that I consulted with a few years ago. Within the first days of my engagement, I was repeatedly confronted with a single (oft-quoted) assertion that “we have an avoidance culture.” What this essentially means—writ broadly—is that the organization and its people don’t like conflict, avoid confrontation and engage in largely passive-aggressive means of getting things done (or shutting things down).
What I interpreted from this—at least initially—was that the organization actually recognized it had an avoidance culture. That meant that they must know it is moderately dysfunctional, and that they are working on changing it. That would be my largest mistake in this particular scenario. The statement was an article of truth, but the actual behaviours didn’t shift to any more constructive approach for the entire period I consulted with them.
What that meant was that hard truths were ignored. Difficult decisions were deferred. Confrontations that should have happened were suppressed. Very real risks and issues on strategically important projects got downplayed and glossed over. The consequence was an outward perception of harmony that glossed over an inward reality of absolute chaos, anarchy, infighting and dissension. Not a fun place to work, and a difficult—if profitable—place to be a consultant.u
While this might be an extreme example, it is not isolated. Every organization has its espoused way of working and how that actually shows up in reality. Depending on the organization, the Venn diagram of those circles overlap more, or they overlap less. In no circumstance that I am ware of do they actually form concentric circles.
The unwritten rules of how things actually get done here very often supersede and override the written rules of how things are supposed to get done. The successful navigators of organizational culture figure that out. The masters of organizational culture assume that to be true, and then act accordingly. The most rewarded behaviours are the ones that ultimately most mimic the ones we learned to demonstrate in the playground. We become part of the “in” culture, and operate appropriately.
This essentially means is that rules have layers. And rewarded behaviours have layers, also. There are the proscribed rules of how the organization operates, that are committed to paper and discussed in formal contexts. And there are the understood rules of how things actually get done, that are socially reinforced and intuitively understood and rarely discussed at all.
The intersection of the formal and informal rules define how things actually happen. And where the emphasis is placed depends to a large degree on how much value there is for formal and consistent versus pragmatic and relevant. What broad-brushed models tell us is where on the continuum any organization falls. And what a nuanced understanding of the rules reveals is what needs to happen in any given situation.