All organizations, no matter their size, structure, or mandate have a culture. Sometimes the culture is artificially shaped with a little help from management and sometimes cultures form organically. Subcultures also surface in many organizations, particularly larger ones with numerous departments – the engineering team will have a different culture from that of the marketing team. But regardless of what the organizational culture and subculture is – be it one of innovation, accountability, or distrust – most seem to form due to similar factors.
Here’s a look at a few of those culture-shaping influences.
Mission and values
A company’s mission statement and values serve as a primary determinant of its culture. By presenting a formal statement that lays out what it strives for and how it plans to reach that goal, a company is able to shape the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors of its employees. Recruits and brand new hires who have yet to gain exposure to a company and gauge its culture usually rely on the mission statement and values as a source of guidance for how to conduct his or herself on Day 1.
Employees also look to upper management for indication of the unwritten rules that form the culture. In fact, upper management’s influence on culture is possibly the most significant, given their clout in an organization. When changes to a company’s culture are being implemented, the number one recommendation that change management consultants will offer is that upper management and leaders within the organization need to “walk the walk” if they want employees to follow suit.
Looking at Enron as an example, upper management did not “walk the walk” that was expressed in its core values. Formally, Enron’s values were communication, respect, integrity, and excellence. However, the 2001 revelation of willful corporate fraud and corruption happening behind closed doors at the Enron headquarters indicate that an entirely different culture was embraced. Even though many Enron insiders were allegedly aware of executives’ financial misdeeds, the out of control Enron culture caused objections to fall on deaf ears.
The conduct and attitude of one’s peers also act as an influencing factor to an organization’s culture, particularly to a subculture. This herd mentality phenomenon has its advantages: it signifies a strong culture and provides a clear set of behaviors for new employees to adopt. However, it can also have its drawbacks. Strong cultures can be dangerous if they’re based on harmful beliefs and assumptions and are more difficult to change. They also don’t lend themselves to innovation, entrepreneurial creativity, and accountability.
A company’s past history plays an important role in shaping its culture. Often times, the current management team will use historical company figures to impress a particular culture within the business. Walmart founder Sam Walton remains a key figure in the Walmart corporate offices, despite having passed over twenty years ago. His drive for lower prices and a ruthless demand that employees “buy into the Walmart way” are still very much a part of the culture today. “I remember when I joined Wal-Mart I went through a full week of cultural indoctrination,” writes Michael Bergdah, a former Walmart Director who worked alongside Sam Walton. “Sam Walton demanded that everyone buy into Walmart's unique culture, as do today's leaders. The employees and the managers are expected to drink Walmart's distinct ‘Cultural Kool-Aid’ and embrace the culture . . . or leave!”