Organisational Culture

Culture is co-created in the moment, through the aggregated actions of every individual. But it’s not constructed in isolation: it is built within a context, a context set by the tribal structures, normalised behaviours, and landscape of consequence, that exists within the organisation. Today, i wanted to draw together a few of the notions i’ve been exploring elsewhere, and bring them together in one place, as a view of Organisational Culture as a whole. This will form the foundation of a session i’m running in New York on Wednesday, looking at how culture forms and shifts over time.

Organisational Culture

Let’s consider culture from three perspectives: individual to local tribe, between different tribes, and within the context of the organisation as a whole. To do that, we have to understand the difference between at least two ‘flavours’ of culture: primary, and secondary, cultural alignment, which i wrote about recently. ‘Primary’ cultural alignment forms in hours, to days, and is a dominant force, representing the dominant local effects of inclusion or consequence. ‘Secondary’ cultural alignment is our ability to understand and navigate the global political structure, takes years to form, almost certainly through experience, and is not available to everyone.

Primary Cultural Alignment

Our local units, tribes, are trust bonded, trust that is forged through primary cultural alignment (and probably other forces as well, but let’s stick with this this simple initial picture for now). When we join an organisation, we join a primary tribe: this may be geographically close, or for online teams, functionally close. We learn the rituals, language and, crucially, the oppositional forces.


Oppositional forces are interesting, and represent my own evolving understanding of the cohesive forces of communities: some are held together through consensus (we agree on something), whilst others are held in opposition (we are united in our disagreement with something else).

Once we have our primary cultural alignment, and initial place within the structure, there is not a vast incentive to move: we do not have a limitless desire to join, or ability to function within, endless new structures. We nest.

So Organisations end up with multiple local tribes: the ability of an organisation to be agile, to be dynamic (or Socially Dynamic), to change, is held in it’s ability to gain access to, influence within, and listen to, these local tribes. It needs to become interconnected.

Our relationships that form the most visible manifestation of culture, one to one, are governed by local tribal forces, and internal cognitive ones: confirmation bias, group identity, individual identity, and dominant local narratives. These are both deeply intractable, but also, at least to some extent, available to us to impact, e.g. through mindful reflection, i can observe my own actions, and do something about them, and if culture is co-created, whilst i can’t change what you do, if i change what i do myself, it may change culture.

The second perspective, between different tribes, may be a more intractable issue: tribes, or communities, form stories that emerge as dominant narratives. Dominant narratives are not passively picked up by individuals: they act as a limiter on our actions. We are as constrained by dominant narratives as we are enabled by them.

This makes change harder: the dominant narrative is an aggregated cultural effect, beyond the influence of any one individual. Dominant narratives tend to persist over long periods of time. They do change, but often through fragmentation, as we are seeing at the moment in some of the erosion of outdated narratives of gender based power, and social injustice. Trying to influence tribally held dominant narratives from outside can lead to antibody effects, whereby our intention to nullify a narrative actually reinforces and validates it. To change dominant narratives probably requires either aggregated social action at scale, within the community, or a compelling disruptive narrative, that is magnetic, from outside of it.

From the perspective of organisations, the challenge may be to recognise that what they describe as ‘culture’ is actually ‘aspiration of culture’. In itself, this is not an issue: it’s fine for an organisation to aspire to have an excellent culture, but it should not fool itself that ‘aspiration’ is the same as ‘grinding reality’. An aspiration may set a frame, but it’s the actions of individuals that give the experience, and in any event, the experience of culture is probably more a factor of intra and inter tribal dynamics, than any organisational one.

Much of this is an abstraction: culture is complex, and almost entirely informal and invisible. Social systems are complicated, and can’t be fully modelled or understood from the outside. Most interaction is social, or at least moves beyond formal rules. And even within a social structure that we can ‘see’, most of the action flows around the edges in encounters that we can’t see, and have no permission to access.

The outcome of these dynamics is that culture exists as some kind of meta structure, beyond our immediate control, but strongly interacting in our everyday experience. It’s quite strange like that: we cannot touch it, but it touches us every day.

The real impact of this work is in how we change culture: indeed, can we change culture? I’d argue that from, within the formal system, we cannot directly change culture (because culture is not like a garden wall. You cannot knock it down and build another), but we can interact with it in ways that may help it to evolve. That’s the tricky subject of ‘change’.

The route to change is, i believe, firstly, to recognise that we do not own culture and, secondly, to enable and empower those who do. That’s a subject that i’m exploring with ‘The Change Handbook’. For now, i just wanted to draw together a range of threads.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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