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Why Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Why Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Some organizations are very formal, others informal. Some have very clear rules about what people may or may not do, whilst others rely on ’common sense’ or ’custom and practice’. Although some of the differences are down to things like the official rules that people should follow, or how their different roles and relationships operate, many of them are due to the general way that people behave, think and act. This is what we generally mean by the organization’s culture.

Culture is very hard to define but very easy to see or recognize when you come across another or unfamiliar culture. Culture has been described as being ‘the way we do things around here’. In other words, it’s the set of unwritten rules governing people’s behavior, the ‘custom and practice’ that has built up over time.

Most organizations have their own particular culture. Some are very formal and even organized, like the military or police or even a government department perhaps. Others, such as technology companies, consulting firms and media/advertising agencies for example, are very informal. Here the senior managers are likely to be addressed by their first name and roles and responsibilities are much more fluid and rules and ways of working may be a lot looser.

Generally speaking, culture (‘the way we do things around here’) is a result of people’s:

  • attitudes (how they look at the world)
  • customs (how they normally behave)
  • expectations (what they expect others to do).

What is Team ‘culture’?

As teams develop, so they tend to develop their own culture. This can even mean developing their own:

  • language (like nicknames for other teams, suppliers or customers)
  • symbols (such as badges or emblems, or having their own team name)
  • traditions (such as buying treats for the team on someone’s birthday).

Culture creates what are called norms. Norms are what the team regards as normal. Some of these norms are ‘official’ and are encouraged by an organization. Some are not. Most groups of people develop a common understanding of the right way to do things, and these are the group’s norms. They reflect the team’s culture, how team members are encouraged to behave, their attitudes and what they should expect from one another. Norms can affect how tasks are performed, the speed at which people work and standard of goods and/or services they produce. New team members are typically encouraged to share these norms, to behave in the same or similar way, work at the same pace and generally conform. Norms therefore help to encourage the team to work together, to support each other and feel a strong sense of belonging to the team.

How do values fit in?

Cultures reflect values. If you do something because ‘everyone does it’, even though you know it is wrong, then this tells you something about the values of the team or the organization. On the other hand, if you leave the work you are currently doing to help a customer who is having problems, or to stop some visitors going into an area without proper protective clothing, then this also tells you about the values that operate in a given workplace. Values that ‘customers must always be cared for’, for example, or that ‘safety is paramount’ tend to indicate that it is right to give customer care priority and that it is wrong not to wear protective clothing.

When culture causes problems

Teams need to be able to accept non-conformity. Because culture tends to be about conformity, it makes it hard when individuals do not appear to fit in. This may be due to them having developed a very different set of attitudes, expectations and behaviors; they may work according to different norms and have different values.  The question is, are these better or worse than those of the team?

The most important responsibility for any team leader in this context is to watch out for unfair  pressure  on  anyone  who  doesn’t  fit  the  team’s  norms. Such individuals can be made an outsider, miss out on team social activity and be left to do all the unwanted or unpleasant jobs and tasks. This can even become discriminatory. In some workplaces, teams tend to consist of people who are all of a similar age, sex or ethnicity, and someone who is different to this “norm” can be made to feel excluded. This can also mean that team members may well bully people who do not conform. A team leader should therefore always ask whether the team’s culture matches the organization’s.  Do team members’ attitudes, customs and expectations match the organization’s? Do they have the norms and values that the organization expects? If so, then a leader should ideally look at the so-called outsider’s attitudes and behavior and ask if they conflict with the organization’s culture.

Changing cultures

Cultures are hard to change, because they are so hard to define but we can focus on a few key aspects such as what are the important attitudes, customs or behaviors that need to change? Is there a particular language, symbol or tradition that reflects what is wrong? Are there any particular norms or values that are seriously out of line? Every team leader has a responsibility for the team that he or she leads and the overall “health” of the culture that evolves. This means paying attention to not only what the team does, but how they do it. It is more than allocating tasks and checking outcomes. A leader has to accept responsibility for how the team treats customers, suppliers and the people they work with. That means being constantly aware of the culture of the team and how it shifts and changes over time.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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