Understanding Culture

Posted on February 13, 2013 by


One of the primary responsibilities of leaders is to understand, manage and change when necessary organizational culture.  Every organization has inherent shared values, traditions, heritage, and stories.  Smart leaders recognize that a successful organizational culture is by design and has well-defined values, beliefs and norms that are apparent to and shared by all members.  “Culture is a major determinant of an organization’s ability to innovate and drives the form, degree, and speed of such innovation” (Mgbere, 2009).  In order to be successful, leaders must understand what organizational culture is and the role it has in the success of the organization.

The culture of an organization reflects all the beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and symbols that are characteristic of an organization (Rashid, Sambasivan & Rahman, 2003).  Key elements of organizational culture have been identified as heritage and traditions, language and symbols and shared values (Rashid, Sambasivan & Rahman, 2003; Hofstede et al., 1990; Yahyagil, 2006; Mgbere, 2009).  While heritage reflects the organization’s history, traditions are behaviors and beliefs that are passed on to each generation of employees. Within the fabric of the organization’s heritage and traditions are organizational heroes.  The heroes are those larger than life characters who figure prominently by symbolizing the organization.  Heroes also provide role models and set standards for how individuals, leaders in particular, are expected to perform.

Shared values reflect what is important and meaningful to the group.  They reflect expectations regarding how members behave and how people within or external to the organization should be treated.  Shared values also define the standard for ethical actions and socially responsible behaviors.  Shared values may include perceptions regarding openness, respect, courage, honesty, integrity, and diversity.  In essence, values reflect the intangible aspects of the organization (Hofstede, 1990).

Finally, each organization has its own language and symbols.  The symbols represent the organization as well as groups of members within it.  Common phrases and quotes are often interspersed throughout meetings and conversations.   While language provides a very tangible means of communicating culture, symbols provide more implicit or intangible transfers of organizational beliefs, values and norms (Bass, 1998).

As noted earlier, smart leaders understand and manage organizational culture in a manner that is strategic.  Strategic leaders use culture as a tool to create a successful environment that fosters employee engagement, innovaction and success.

Bass, B.M. (1998). Transformational Leadership and Organizational Culture.  Public Administration Quarterly, 17(1), 112-117.

Hofstede, G. , Neujen, B., Ohavy, D.D. & Sanders, G. (1990). Measuring organizational culture. Administration Science Quarterly, 35(2), 286-316

Mgbere, O. (2009). Exploring the relationship between organizational culture, leadership styles and corporate performance: An overview.  Journal of Strategic Management Education 5(3&4), 187-202.

Yahyagil, M.Y. (2006). The fit between the concepts of organizational culture and climate. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communication and Conflict, 10(2), 77-104.

Rashid, Z.A., Sambasivan, M. & Rahman, A.A. (2003).  The influence of organizational culture on attitudes toward organizational change.  Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 25(1/2), 161-179.