Some musings on culture

I worked, for a long time, for an organization which was famous for its unique culture.  Business school students studied us. People joined and stayed their whole careers. Culture was everything, sometimes to the detriment of business results.  I believe most people who worked there felt that they mattered. That what they did mattered. It was (and still is) a great place to work for many people, and for some, it’s not.

For me, the definition of organizational culture that works best is, “the way we do things around here”.  Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do”.  I would add that we are also what we repeatedly ignore.

My own beliefs about organizational culture have emerged over years of working in organizations (as an employee) and working with organizations (as a consultant). If you know me, you know that I value simplicity, so it will not surprise you that my beliefs about how organizations work can be found in the book, A Simpler Way, by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers articulate their beliefs “about human organizations and the world in which they come into form” in a way that resonated deeply with me; and I go back to them over and over – testing them against my own beliefs and experiences as they continue to evolve. Here are a few of them for you to ponder:

  • “Life’s natural tendency is to organize. Life organized into greater levels of complexity to support more diversity and greater sustainability. “
  • “Life organizes around a self. Organizing is always an act of creating an identity.”
  • “People are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, and meaning-seeking” (bold is mine)
  • “Organizations are living systems. They too are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, meaning-seeking.”

Before you go any further in thinking about your own organizational culture, I invite you to think about your beliefs about people and organizations. And to think about why thinking about it might matter.

Consider your organization. Do you know, understand and align with the beliefs that drive ‘the way we do things around here’?  I believemost people are creative, resourceful and seeking meaning in their lives. And that our organizations are a great place (yet not the only one) for us to find meaning in our lives.

What do you believe?What does your organizational culture nurture? Notice your reaction to my use of the word ‘nurture’. Organizations, say Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers, too often destroy our desires. “They insist on their own imperatives.”

I’ll leave you with this, also from A Simpler Way. “Organizations can keep searching for new ties that bind us to them – new incentives, rewards, punishments. But organizations could accomplish so much more if they relied on the passion evoked when we connect to others, purpose to purpose. So many of us want to be more. So many of us hunger to discover who we might become together”.

What do you think?