The Enigma of Organisational Culture

Definition of Organisational Culture (OC):

“the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to those problems. This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.” (Schein and Schein, 2016).

A quick Google search will give you so many different definitions it can be dizzying. But rest assured, for the purpose of reading this document, finding a definition you are happy with is not “yet” important, but do find one that sits well with you as you’ll need it at some point.

The definition of a car? “a road vehicle for one driver and a few passengers. Someone who drives a car is called a driver or a motorist” (Floyd, 2018). Ask anyone to offer their thoughts on what the definition of a car is and again you’ll find many variations. Yet all of those people will know what a great car is because it is personal and sometimes situational too.

What OC means to each organisation can differ greatly! For example, what have you personally noticed between the organisations you have worked for? How has one approach to OC differed to the other? If one was better than the other, what was it that made it better?

The Crime:

It may seem a bit strong to call it a crime, but that’s exactly how I see it. Not fostering or monitoring your OC is a crime against your people and your organisation. It restricts openness and the freedom to speak. We must not restrict what people want/need to say! 

When we pay an employee, we are fulfilling the contract we have with them, a mutually agreed contract. If someone didn’t receive their pay or less than they should, they would fix that and quickly. I can hear you thinking, “but that is contractual” and yes, you’d be right. But that is my point. Why do we not have our organisational values written into job descriptions? Why do we not hold everyone responsible and accountable for their behaviour in our culture?

The litmus test for an OC

People and their level of contentment at work is the litmus test for how healthy your organisational culture truly is. I am not saying they should be laughing and joking all day, but they should be getting on, having a laugh now and again, supporting each other, feeling recognised, rewarded and motivated. They will be working well in their working environment and feel they can say pretty much anything in a polite and professional manner.

To truly discover how well your OC is working you must first have certain things in place and working. We strongly suggest an “Organisational Culture Engagement Team” (OCET) which works and gathers the evidence you require, and your OCET will provide that evidence through the data they gather on a regular basis. Having said that, gathering data from people is difficult as people often hide their true feelings defensively (Schein, 2010).

Go and walk amongst your people, chat with them regularly and you will get to know them, their worries, concerns, what drives them, what they love or hate about the organisation. In EI, Social Awareness is the key to building and maintain relationships (and that is for home and for work).

Walking the walk:

An organisation employs a person to work for them based on the skillset the organisation requires and the skillset the person they are employing possesses. So if your organisational values are (for example) “Open, honest, accountable, responsible, authentic” and people are not, then what on earth is the worth of having those values if they are not lived by? Unless of course, it is purely what we refer to as a “flag-waving” activity to tick a box! Yes, it happens a lot! 

If your people see that you do not actively promote, monitor and expect your organisational values to be lived by all; that you do not hold everyone accountable and responsible for the upkeep of your values, then your values are pretty much worthless! Furthermore, the lack of them being upheld will create tension, disputes, ill-feeling and even help to create saboteurs.

When I say saboteurs, I mean that if an employee perceives injustice exists and they are the victim of that injustice, they will purposely withhold information, delay figures or not pass on additional information (Greenberg and Colquitt, 2013). They just want to make someone else’s world a bit more difficult as payback for the injustice they believe has been caused to them and possibly their colleagues. We, humans, can be a complicated and vengeful species, capable of all manner of retribution if we believe we have been wronged. I believe that every person reading this article will have experienced a saboteur or two in their time.

OC is rarely actively driven, nurtured and almost never monitored. Through a lack of accountability and responsibility, we cause the very issues which haunt us including favouritism, behavioural issues, absenteeism, sick leave due to stress, and finally that killer of retention issues where many great or potentially great people leave for better organisations.

People usually leave an organisation because of other people or working cultures which go directly against their own personal values. If you have organisational values then for goodness sake, engage with them fully. Don’t splash them everywhere and then do nothing with them! That’s like buying shopping and leaving it to rot! 

The OC enigma:

Enigma: “a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation”.(DICTIONARY, 2020).

I have described OC as an “enigma” due to my own experiences of many organisations with whom I have worked closely. Some really baffle me.

The enigma is that while organisations publicly share their description of their OC through their organisational values, they rarely drive, cultivate and monitor their presented culture and values through a rigorous OC programme. Values and behaviours are not monitored or lived by their people and there is no responsibility or accountability anywhere. The enigma is, therefore, “why”?

In my experience, most senior leaders within organisations believe (or choose to believe) that the values are upheld by everyone. Some will even support this belief by saying that when they ask their people, the answer is generally “yes, everything is fine”. That is not evidence! The only evidence you have from that is that someone said: “yes, everything is fine”! The truth is more often than not, totally different!

In some organisations I have worked with, it took many months to persuade the organisation to conduct an independent (external) survey on their employee satisfaction and engagement. In two of those cases, the organisations tried to push aside the route we strongly suggested. They did not allow their people to design and drive the change required and they still have increased discontent, and yet they continue to stick their heads in the sand! More of the enigma of OC!

To add to our dismay, and their future issues, they do not realise that their employees no longer trusted them.

Not addressing dissatisfaction immediately is signing the death warrant for employee engagement. Discontent, sabotage, bad temperament and low work output will grow and of course, worst of all, you will lose great or potentially great employees (Edmonds, 2014).

All too often, we take information from others as truth/fact. But bear in mind that sometimes when people tell us “everything is just fine”, they may believe that they need to protect themselves. Look at the programme entitled “undercover boss”, it lets CEOs discover all manner of ills they knew nothing about. Why didn’t they know of them? Nobody told them! Why, I’d imagine they didn’t want to risk the backlash or consequences of telling the truth!

Resolving the enigma!

First, identify what is wrong? Warning! This is most probably going to be uncomfortable as you need to identify why your perceived culture is not what people “say” it is, and ask why has it not been challenged? We call this the Phoenix Effect. Burn down all the misconceptions, the avoidance, the assumptions, and do it quickly by promoting a far better future for all. To do this you’ll need people willing to speak freely, so build trust by creating a robust ES² environment. 

(An ES² environment is where the organisation provides Emotional Security so everyone has Emotional Safety knowing that they can be authentic and say whatever they wish, respectfully and respectfully, without the fear of consequence).

Second, establish your (OCET) made up from engaged and motivated individuals from all areas of your organisation. These people will become the engine for HR to drive your OC programme.

Third, plan, prepare and advertise your OC analysis workshops. These cannot be facilitated until the ES² environment is fully in place. These are open, searching and free speaking events where your people can say whatever they want. They must be allowed to do this for you to gather the true data you need for the programme.

Fourth, facilitate all the planned workshops in as short a space of time as possible. Attendees should ideally be from the same levels so there is no peer pressure which may prevent speaking freely. So team members, then managers, then senior manager and then senior leadership.

Fifth? Ask us in for a chat to discuss all the steps. 

How do we create and cultivate a great OC?

OC is created like a wonderful recipe for a great meal. It is the bringing together of the various ingredients which work together to form a mouth-watering and fulfilling outcome for all. It provides flavour, warmth, nutrition and sustenance for a wonderful working environment.

The organisational values, which are usually to be found everywhere, have to be brought to life through your robust OC programme. The responsibility for driving it to success will rest with each team but supported, monitored and reported on by your newly founded OCET. (“Organisational Culture Engagement Team”).

But how is it created or, perhaps a better question is, what are the ingredients to ensure a great OC?

While we have been cheeky enough to suggest just 3 of the key ingredients, each of those 3 ingredients holds further critical ingredients:

Having created your OCET, empower it to do many things we’d happily recommend, but most of all, this team will become the engine that drives your OC programme onwards and upwards to success and a far better working environment. This is not going to be easy but invest heavily and you will make the difference earlier.

There are a growing number of wonderful organisations who promote authenticity and care for their people in a totally ES² environment. For example, I attended a recent Zoom chat with some wonderful people such as Jodi Rabinowitz from Zoom, Laurel Farrer from Distribute Consulting, Morgan Smith-Leynard from Help Scout and Laïla von Alvensleben from Mural. What all these people added was an overarching focus on people, the individual needs of humans, listening and daring to be authentic… I could go on. Is the chat always work focused? No not at all! But the non-work moments of social engagement bring people together (Consulting, 2020).

Why is culture different between teams?

For this, I will split an organisation’s culture into three categories.

Presented culture– where the organisation proudly portrays the culture they say or they think (are told) everyone exhibits.

Experienced culture– the real feeling of the organisation’s culture that people experience from working there.

Localised culture– this can be completely different between two teams situated right beside one another.

The trick, of course, is to get everyone onto that same page and that is not as difficult as it may at first seem.

How can we do this?

Well, there is a lot to consider but to give you a starter:

What are some of the key signs and causes of a toxic culture?

Key signs can include:


1) Lack of training on managing others (EI, leadership skills etc).

2) Blockers – as in a leader or a manager (sometimes driven by others) such as:

3) Ineffective performance management processes. Examples may include:

4) Lack of open honest discussions and using the many heads approach.

5) Lack of real recognition and praise for effort, ideas and achievements.

6) No real permission to go “off-piste” and have a go at new.

7) No wider organisational community fostered at all.

Why should all this matter to the organisation’s leadership?

It stifles the performance, innovation and productivity you could have.

If you think, “well, we’re still meeting our targets”, then you’ve missed the point. Even though you are hitting those targets you’re killing moral, losing some great people, and costing the organisation through lost opportunity and greater output and success.

As said earlier, “People and their level of happiness at work is the litmus test for how healthy your organisational culture truly is”. If they’re not working happily check it out!

Happy workers perform FAR better, offer more innovative ideas, talk positively about their organisation and LIVE the values and underpinning behaviours the organisation has agreed with them.

If you want to “bring people with you”, then take the time to learn about them and they will help clean the culture for you (Jarrett, 2010).

Unhappy workers in a toxic environment will create unconscious and conscious saboteurs, cost you FAR more in staff turnover, cause more errors, attract more complaints and breed discontent within teams.

Having processes and having HR ensure people are encouraged to speak their thoughts and say how they truly feel is not enough! Research shows that in some cases, 50% of employees still don’t feel safe doing so and therefore don’t speak out (Carroll et al., 2017).

An organisations OC is not just to have a content and motivated workforce, it also attracts your customer’s attention which research shows attracts them to not just your organisation but your brand image as well (Rossi and Krey, 2019). You can’t buy that!

OC Post Pandemic:

Actually, I believe that if you think you need to do something different because of the lockdown and enforced remote working, then, in my opinion, you were missing something key before lockdown started. OC is OC, regardless whether your people are in the office or working remotely. What I mean is yes, we may need different approaches, being more creative by designing engaging online interactions, but the essence of OC is still the same. We should always have been:

However, if I am working remotely, especially from home, that is now my workspace. The person with the most impact on my workspace is usually the person who checks in with me, my manager/team leader. It, therefore, stands to reason that if my lifeline to the office is one person, they may not have a great impact on my workspace and my wellbeing. 

If you do not have a manager who is well trained in managing others, the impact will generally not be great and again, people leave managers (Onnis, 2018). So involve your whole team and employ our ROPE concept (Remote Office Pairing for Engagement) to ensure people are truly connected to their work colleagues and office workspace discussions as well.

Quotes as food for thought:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”- Steve Jobs.

“I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.”- Lee Iacocca.

“True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it”. – Daniel Goleman. 

“When we truly empower our people (ES²), real authenticity, untapped innovation and Emotional Intelligence brings a clarity to communication and produces extraordinary colleague relationships” – Mac Macdonald.

If there is one thing the lockdowns across the world have shown us, it is the that we all have to treat each other as fellow humans regardless of hierarchical position, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and all the other ingredients which make us “US”. Take all of these and more and respect them, praise them, give time to ask and learn about them, understand that we are different and celebrate it. But most importantly, be considerate.

“Truly engage with others by showing you care, 

that in your genuine authenticity you too are vulnerable. 

This is all about being human and it helps create trust”

~ Mac Macdonald ~

Written by – Mac Macdonald

Please share this document with anyone you feel may be interested.


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