Culture according to the CIPD is ‘a set of beliefs and values shared by members of the same organisation that influences their behaviour.’ Or put more simply, in plain English, it’s the collective view of ‘how we do things around here’.

There are so many factors that combine to create culture. It’s ironic that culture “is not a tangible thing sitting on a shelf that can be prodded and changed of itself.” but it is still perhaps the most pervasive and influential factor on our working experience.

You can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ culture in everything, from how decisions are made, the processes and policies, the language used, reward structures, and how leaders and colleagues behave. And in any change scenario, culture will either be an accelerator or a barrier to that change.

No wonder then there are so many different theories, models and definitions of what culture is, does, affects, and how to measure, benchmark or change it.

We believe there’s a simple way to help understand and shape your organisational culture, as shown in the model below:

Guiding principles

Guiding principles provide the context for and the definition around your preferred culture; they help you create the narrative or the framework that articulates what you want your culture to be and why.

Different organisations have different cultures, depending on the needs of that organisation. If your purpose is your organisation’s reason for being, it’s ‘why’; the strategy the ‘what’ the organisation is trying to achieve; and the vision the ‘where’ it is aiming to get to, then the culture clearly needs to align to these elements.

The market context will also have bearing on your culture in that it provides the external circumstances that influence what the business does and how it responds. For example, in a market of rapid growth, organisations need to demonstrate cultural attributes such as responsiveness and agility. A highly regulated market may demand strong risk management.

Which brings us to values and brand. Organisation values are usually the principles that articulate and guide how an organisation does business, how their employees behave, and how they interact with their customers. In do being, values need to embody the culture of that organisation. Any disconnect and values become meaningless, and the risk is that people behave in ways that conflict with those values. Similarly, an organisation’s brand and culture must be aligned, otherwise your customers’, clients’, and other stakeholders’ experience will be inconsistent, undermining trust and authenticity and leading to reputational risk.

Key influences

Key influences are the factors that impact on the actual experience of culture within an organisation. All organisations will have a distinct culture whether it has been deliberately shaped or developed organically over time.
The primary ways in which culture is seen or felt most clearly is in how people act. Being clear on what you want people to do and the specific behaviours expected will help if you’re looking to change or shape your culture. Equally, if you want to identify your current culture, then understanding the most prevalent behaviours will give a good gauge.

In terms of leadership, Gallup research shows one in two people have left their job to get away from their manager. Leaders and managers are fundamental to the employee experience at work and therefore on culture. Leaders need to walk the talk, otherwise employees quickly realise what is and is not important and can imitate the behaviours they believe will be most valued by their leader.

The working environment, policies and processes, and communications and engagement activities also need to reflect the organisation’s preferred culture, or the risk is they undermine it. I’ve worked with organisations which have said they wanted their people to feel more empowered and better able to make decisions, but had a travel-booking policy that required c-level sign off, or that claimed to be a non-hierarchical, open organisation but had a floor in the building that only execs could use; or even that had multiple routes for ‘listening’ to colleagues, but never actually did anything with what they heard. Examples like this of processes and policies, communications or workplaces that undermine the stated preferred culture can damage credibility and belief. These examples demonstrate the importance of the preferred culture and behaviours being embedded throughout the whole employee experience.

Both guiding principles and key influences are of equal importance.

If the focus is solely on the guiding principles and defining rather than embedding your preferred culture, then there is a risk that your claims on who you are and how you do things will be superficial and lack authenticity. Whatever the stated culture is, if this isn’t what your employees (and clients) experience in their day-to-day work, then it won’t be your actual culture. The ‘say-do gap’ will be evident.

On the other hand, without considering the guiding principles there is no clarity on what the organisational culture needs to be or why. The risk is then that culture is either defined by what others do, and therefore bears no relation to what your organisation needs, or by the personal preferences of those people involved in trying to shape it.
So if you find yourself asking ‘what would Google do?’, or explaining apologetically that the senior team often cancel things last minute, you may want to step back and reflect.