Culture, Desired Culture, and Prevailing Culture

Engagement surveys, pulse checks, town hall meetings, cafeteria meetings. All these and more are used by organizations to get a handle on the culture. The culture. The set of beliefs, practices, and principles that define the “who we are” of an organization. A culture that the leadership hopes is so strong, that any employee would manage a customer service problem, for example , in the exact same way.

Leadership defines the culture and works to make it the fact of how the organization functions. No matter what words are used to define a culture, the culture is defined in terms of the actual behaviors. First in the actions of the leaders, and second, in their inactions. What leaders don’t do can speak as loudly as what they do. If they neglect to reinforce a desired cultural norm, they miss the opportunity to further advance the desired culture. If they turn their head the other way when a supervisor breaks a rule, they are sending another message about what the culture allows.

When I think of the different teams I have worked on over the years, and the many team leaders I have had, I think that the word “culture” has different meanings in the workplace.

Culture – the way we present ourselves to the general public. Some companies give themselves a label that informs you about their culture, others have some slogans or tag lines. In this case, culture isn’t just about how empolyees interact with one another or their customers, it’s also about the process of how they do things. The General Electric company, for example, used the slogan “We bring good things to life”. (and if you were born before 1970, you might have heard the tune that went with the slogan as you read it just now).

Desired Culture – the culture that current leadership is trying to instill in their employees. This is not a sign of problems with the culture, but an indication that management is thinking ahead on how to keep the organization growing and changing in the right directions.

Prevailing culture – this is the one that employees talk about over a beer at the local watering hole. They are either happy as can be about the environment they work in, or they are complaining about the way things really are.

If you are trying to create a cultural shift (move to a desired culture), don’t assume that your published culture or your leaders’ views on current culture are correct. Go to the middle managers and the front lines, that’s where you will learn what the prevailing culture is. And that is the starting point if you are trying to change things.

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