I’ve been in several conversations over the last week about culture: ‘trust’ cultures, ‘learning’ cultures, ‘toxic’ cultures, and ‘fair’ culture, all aspects of, i suspect, a desired congruent and coherent culture. ‘Congruent’, because the isolated culture of an Organisation exists within a broader social context, and ‘Coherent’, because the forces that bind it must be stronger than those that drive it apart.
Typically i find it useful to distinguish between two manifestations of culture: aspirational, and lived. Organisations describe the culture that they want (aspirational), using powerful words (like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, etc), but our day to day experience, the lived experience, is true culture (lived culture). Culture is not how i would like you to behave: it’s about how i behave towards you, and how you respond to that behaviour. It’s co-created and, hence, co-owned. Or co-fragmented.
I make that last point with care, because it may seem overly harsh to allocated collective responsibility for cultural failure, and yet i think that is substantially true, certainly in cases where toxicity persists over time. The failure is partly the action of the individual, and partly the failure of wider culture to address it. The individual fails to live up to culture, but often, especially with the erosion of values (such as gender pay gaps, or inequality), there is no wider stance to oppose that behaviour.
After playing around with a few definitions, when i wrote the first Social Leadership book, i settled on defining a high functioning culture as ‘coherent’. By which i mean, one that tidies away it’s own rubbish. The forces that prevent most of us from throwing our food wrappers on the floor are cultural: learned behaviours governed by social norms. It’s the same mechanism by which (most of us) would avoid sharing jokes in bad taste, or bullying someone, or to put it another way, it’s the same mechanism by which some of us join racist societies or bully people. Because here’s the thing: ‘coherence’ is not the same thing as ‘good’. A violent gang may have a highly coherent culture.
Culture is internally self referential, certainly in terms of it’s coherence: the group, the community, decide the rules, and stick to the rules: internal coherence. Hence why i added ‘congruent’: when Organisations describe culture, they almost certainly mean both coherent, and congruent. Coherent, in having shared internal values, but congruent, in being aligned with wider societal views or norms.
In Organisational terms, the word ‘culture’ is much maligned, or perhaps, should be maligned: it’s often used to describe aspiration, and often used to implicitly outlaw undesirable behaviours (but note, not ‘bad’ ones. Just ones that the dominant leadership does not like). Conversely, lived culture is often lived out of sight of the formal Organisation. It’s hidden at the local level, embodied within the tribes.
I guess as someone interested in social systems, it’s impossible to duck the question of ‘what is culture’, but the answer is inevitably either super vague, or bluntly prescriptive. Culture is either a dream, or it’s what you are doing right now. Or possibly both.