When I teach students in my undergraduate psychology course about culture, I always start with helping them learn about their own. Many times students who are members of a majority group will have difficulty identifying what aspects of their routine, clothing, and diet represent their culture. Turn the tables and assign them an “exotic” culture to research and they easily spot the cultural indicators. Culture is invisible, at least our own often is. We are so steeped in our culture we hardly notice it other than to observe when something different intersects with it.
The same is true for corporate cultures, which is today’s hip way of referring to human resources, physical plant, and corporate governance procedures. Culture is now currency in many sectors, with conferences, webinars, and initiatives all focused on defining, spreading, or improving the invisible essence of a company. In some ways these efforts are about branding, but the branding effort is internal rather than external. Savvy businesses in the day of social media are furthering the internal branding effort, the Culture effort, into a strategy to engage external audiences more deeply than pure marketing or product might do. The most successful Culture practices are translating to the outside observer as authentic, organic, and participatory atmosphere within the organization.
The Circus Hotel and Apartments is a series of hostel, hotel, and flats designed to immerse the traveler into the life of Berlin, Germany. Rather than a box with a bed, the hotel aimed to create a community of travelers that would learn and support each other, while becoming a meaningful, if temporary, part of the community in which it operates. Resources are used to spread this message to workers and to patrons. A hotel magazine connects the traveler to staff, who are columnists, featured guests, and contributors. Add to this a set of policies around uniforms, customer responsiveness, and community participation and the experience for the visitor is one of belonging, even if they have never been. And, it works, the Circus has been able to grow and expand despite economic challenges, they are committed to a living wage for their staff, and place an emphasis on sustainability. They have staff that are committed to their vision and the community. And under the hood, the imperfections that exist are part of the tapestry that makes up their Culture.
How do you take these lessons into your own organization? My students always struggle at first when labeling their cultural indicators, how would your employees and leadership team fare when asked this of your organization? How about if you turn the tables and frame it as a question about the competition’s culture, or a client partner’s culture? Often this is easier and may be a starting point for your organization to conduct a Cultural inventory of its people and practices. Once there is widespread recognition of what your organizational culture really is, you can begin to enhance or message the culture more easily.
What is the value of identifying Culture within an organization? It can lead to some high profile industry wide notice, which in turn can lead to talent finding you rather than you hunting talent. These certainly are great benefits, but an additional, and I think more important one, is that knowing culture allows you to better understand the transitions and challenges that will arise in the organization. By knowing that your organization is shaped by a leadership vision of independence and autonomy, you can predict that growth, which will bring with it additional regulatory demands, will likely be difficult for staff. Using culture to frame the challenge and the opportunities it presents will assist in shaping a productive response to the change.
A word of caution. Remember that earlier point that effective organizational culture is often organic and authentic? Sometimes cultural pride can transform our replication efforts into repetition or sloganeering. Avoid treating your organizational culture as an object to be manipulated or messaged or you will devour whatever amount of commitment your employees and stakeholders have provided. “Cultural Evangelists” are trendy now, a designated staff person that is in charge of programming and spreading the message about your corporate culture, and in charge of alerting leadership to problems within the cultural fabric of the company. But the real staying power of spreading your culture lies in the people and the positions you already have. Empower them with ownership of the environment they share, and allow authentic expressions of support, and you won’t need an “evangelist” to spread the word; you’ll have missionaries in spades.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014