‘Organizational culture’ is a difficult concept to pin down. It defies easy measurement, includes elements that are implicit or unspoken, and often evolves in ways that organizations never planned. But in the face of disruptions like COVID-19, trends like the Great Resignation, and commitments to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, the need for organizations to understand culture has never been more urgent.
To better understand organizational culture and how organizations work to shape, change, or sustain it, we conducted a series of roundtable discussions and numerous interviews with professionals who play a role in shaping their organizations’ cultures. Our findings from this research, which can be found in our How to Shift and Sustain Organizational Culture collection, are very much the product of a collaborative endeavor between APQC and its members. In recognition of this fact, below are three important lessons that our members helped us to learn about organizational culture:
- employees are keen observers of organizational culture,
- many organizations have an opportunity to build digital culture, and
- humans are at the center of organizational culture.
Each of these lessons include insights from research participants, who tell the story of organizational culture in their own language throughout our longer report.
Employees are Keen Observers of Organizational Culture
Employees pay close attention to their organizations’ cultures. They notice who gets hired, who gets terminated or laid off, who gets promoted, and why. They are also sure to notice gaps between an organization’s stated mission or values and “how things really work around here.” When push comes to shove, an employee’s daily, lived experience of their organization’s culture is simply going to carry more weight than what an organization says its culture is supposed to be.
“If you’re in an organization for any length of time, you can watch who’s getting promoted and based on that, you learn how to behave. It’s not necessarily about the mission statements, but instead about the behaviors that lead to success.
–Culture roundtable participant
Organizational leaders like executives are especially visible to employees. When leaders fail to serve as role models for culture, it’s easy for employees to become cynical and see culture as performative and transactional, rather than substantive. Whether an organization wants to promote better work/life balance, emphasize the importance of ethical behavior, or shift to a process thinking culture, it’s clear from our research that there is still a big need for leaders set the tone from the top.
Employees know a toxic workplace culture when they see one, but they can equally recognize a vibrant culture where leaders walk the talk and every team member is empowered to do their best work in a supportive environment. It is difficult to overestimate the impact that even implicit and unspoken messages make on an employee’s level of engagement or decision to find work elsewhere.
Many Organizations Still Have an Opportunity to Build Digital Culture
As with culture in the physical workplace, virtual or digital cultures need to be driven by concrete values, rituals, norms, and behaviors in order to flourish. Unfortunately, many organizations have been slow to develop digital culture in a thorough and consistent way.
Elements of culture that enable a sense of social connection and belonging are a case in point. One of the biggest challenges for remote work is the fact that many facets of in-person workplace culture do not translate into a digital setting. You can’t digitally bump into your colleague in the hallway for a serendipitous conversation, and critical social rituals like holiday parties often feel like nonstarters in a virtual setting. As a result, many employees felt—and may still feel—a palpable sense of social isolation and displacement with the shift to remote work.
The search for new rituals and practices that forge social connection in a digital setting is an emergent challenge that we (collectively) are only beginning to recognize, let alone answer. It is an area where we need to keep pushing, researching, and innovating.
Virtual collaboration is another area where organizations should look to strengthen their digital cultures. When organizations do not intentionally set norms and guidelines for virtual collaboration, there is a risk that ad hoc norms will emerge as groups work together. This might sound good on the surface, but our research on virtual collaboration found that employees are significantly more likely to be dissatisfied with the current state of virtual collaboration in their workplace in these scenarios. Employees (especially those in younger generational cohorts like Millennials and Gen Z) want robust rules and guidelines for virtual collaboration to protect time for deep work and put limits on the number of virtual meetings they are expected to attend.
I can’t wait to be back in the office because I want to have fewer meetings. Things that could have been dealt with in a five minute conversation in the hall now take a half-hour.
–Culture research interviewee
Remote work is here to stay, which means that organizations need to invest in creating unique rituals, behavioral norms, and guardrails to grow digital culture.
Humans are at the Center of Organizational Culture
Organizational culture is a fundamentally human creation that enables people to forge shared meaning and work cooperatively toward mutual goals. But it’s easy—especially amid the constant churn of goals, strategy, policy, and the bottom line—to lose sight of the fact that humans are at the center of organizational culture.
Many of the biggest challenges for organizational culture have their origins in the failure to meet very human needs, like belonging, communication, recognition for one’s contributions, and the ability to meaningfully participate in making decisions about change. It’s easy for an organization’s desired culture to become disconnected from reality when these needs go unmet.
“Culture derails when there is only one direction of communication—top down. It creates mistrust when people feel things are being done to them and not for them.
–Culture roundtable participant
The best organizations discover and meet these needs by staying as close to the employee experience as possible, listening to employees, and closing the feedback loop with meaningful change and dialog after receiving employee input. Organizations should also look beyond highly visible roles in the C-suite to long-tenured employees in the trenches, who often have wide-ranging relationships and a good deal of expertise in their organization’s explicit and implicit culture. Organizational culture revolves around the gravity of these human relationships, which in some organizations have more pull than goals, measures, or strategy.
“Some of the key influencers in my organization are people who are ‘lifers’—those who had established roles in the organization even when it was much smaller. Metrics and the organization’s goals and objectives don’t matter as much as relationships and who knows things.
–Culture Roundtable Participant
The diverse roles, processes, and practices that research participants identified as drivers of culture show that organizational culture cannot be the responsibility of a single function (like HR) or executive (like the CEO). Shaping, sustaining, or working to change organizational culture is a collective endeavor that needs buy in, support, and engagement from all levels of an organization. For more insights and guidance about organizational culture, see our full report, titled Cultural Influencers: How to Shift and Sustain Organizational Culture.
Join APQC’s Elissa Tucker during the “People, Culture, and Change” track at APQC’s 2022 Process and Knowledge Management Conference to learn more about managing culture and engaging the workforce for buy-in and adoption for change.