How Do You Really Define and Leverage Organizational Culture?

Over the course of the last decade, the topic of organizational culture has played an increasing role in strategic discussions at the highest levels of companies around the world. Without a functional culture, retention, engagement and performance suffers in any organization. Understanding this is the easy part.

The hard part is grasping the concept of culture. It overlaps with all areas of the company: hiring, retention, engagement, accountability, performance management and alignment to company objectives. You wouldn’t let performance and follow-through be left to ‘organically’ develop in your organization and hope that leaders are inspiring the right message. So, why would you leave culture to chance?

Culture is how we think and act

Part of the problem is that culture is not something that is easy to articulate or define. You know it when you see it, but to define it can be tough. One definition that is widely accepted is that culture is the combination of how we think and how we act. That is, our shared values and our expectations about the behaviors of those around us. These definitions get us a long way to a common language about the issue, but they only go so far in helping us research them in an applied fashion.

But it must be put to work

In order to leverage your culture effectively, you will need to understand not only what your current culture is, but also what culture is needed to help your company achieve its strategic goals. Once you have that culture, you will need a commitment from organizational leaders to adopt new behaviors in support of that culture over time.

In our business, we use a model of culture that works well to highlight specific actionable areas for change. We think of culture as three overlapping concepts: Rational Facts, Emotional Truths and Personality.

Rational Facts

Rational Facts are the easily discoverable facts about an organization that can be found online or in various materials issued by a company, such as annual reports or recruiting materials.

Emotional Truths

Emotional Truths are the organizational idiosyncrasies or unspoken codes that lay beneath the collective unconscious. These insights are gathered through deep conversations with leaders and individual conversations with people who are good at their jobs and also fit into the culture quite well.

An example of an Emotional Truth occurred recently as I visited the headquarters of a large North American retailer to conduct a focus group with some young people who had been identified as high performers. A half hour into the session, one of the participants contributed that most evenings he stays at his desk from 5:30 to 7:00, surfing the Internet or playing Solitaire. Follow-up conversation found that this was a cultural norm that no one talked about. You were quite simply expected to stay until your boss left. This information was crucial to understand, but had never been part of the narrative in recruiting talent for the company.


Last is the Personality of an organization. For this element, we use a survey that is based on Jungian archetypes, which highlight the story a company is telling about itself or shaping for itself. We generally use a proprietary survey to better understand and pinpoint the Personality of the organization.

Understand It, Then Act On It

All of these elements combined offer a more complete picture of organizational culture. Once culture is understood, it will become evident whether your company is excelling because of, or in spite of, culture. Change can be planned and executed on after a consensus is reached among leadership, and a commitment is made to model new behaviors for constant, steady change. But don’t overlook the foundational step of understanding your culture first, which is essential in both measuring and acting to change it over time.

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