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What is Culture Anyway?

When it comes to building great organizations, just about everyone would agree: culture is important. Culture is the heart and soul of an organization. When we hire people, we hire for “fit” into our culture. There are even companies who have Chief Culture Officers. And, of course, there’s the ever-popular trope that Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.

But what is culture anyway? If it’s so doggone important, how do we know what we’re looking for? And how, perchance, might we shape and build the culture that we want?

So What IS Culture?

Too many people over-complicate this question. Culture is, quite simply, the “personality” of a group.

It is easy to grasp the idea that individuals have personalities. If I asked you to describe the personality of your best friend, you could do it almost without thinking.

It turns out that organizations have personalities too. It works like this: whenever two or more people come together their combined wants, desires, values, and beliefs create an entity akin to a collective mind. Like individuals, a collective mind has a will of its own, a voice of its own, a personality. When only two people are involved, we call that collective mind the relationship. When it’s more than two people, we call it the culture.

You are already familiar with this collective mind. Think about the differences between New York City and New Orleans. Or Germany and the United States. Or the difference between the crowd at a football game and the audience at an opera. It’s easy to see that the personality of the crowd at a football game is quite different from that of the audience of an opera.

Can You Be More Specific?

Sure, culture — the personality of an organization — is simply the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that drive that organization to action. This is a pretty good definition of an individual’s personality as well. If I asked you to describe a friend’s personality you would, no doubt, begin to describe their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

Test this on yourself. Think back to a time when you were hanging out with a group of your friends. What were the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, of that group?

Perhaps you are thinking of a bachelorette party or a time that you went Christmas caroling. Were you rambunctious? Warm-hearted? Did your personality adapt a bit to fit in with the group? See if you can describe the personality — attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors — of that group. Now try describing the “personality” of your current team or organization. What are the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that describe that group?

Why A Useful Definition of Culture Matters

Now that we know what culture is, we have something we can work with.

If you are trying to deliberately build a strong culture — and I hope that you are — you can focus on specific attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that you want to be the norms for that group.

Who are we and how do we want to be seen? What do we believe about ourselves and our customers? What behaviors are acceptable and expected? What processes (i.e., codified behaviors) do we want in place? Influence these things and you are shaping your culture.

On the flip side, if you are searching for a new organization to join, you can anticipate how well you will fit by exploring the attitudes and beliefs of the organizations you’re considering. 

A Few Examples: What’s the Culture At Apple Or Google? 

Here are a few simple examples, derived from observing a couple of the external characteristics of my favorite companies.

AttitudesWe’re really creative.We’re really smart.
BehaviorsMake it perfect. Then launch.A/B test. Launch early, launch often, refine the results.
BeliefsThe customer doesn’t know what they want. We’ll show them what’s possible.Data will tell us what the customer wants.

You get the idea.

What’s next?

  • Start to pay attention to the cultures of the organizations to which you belong. Try to articulate the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of those organizations.
  • Drop me a note in the comments below. Agree or disagree? Let me know some of the more pronounced characteristics of the cultures you have seen.

Originally published January 16, 2014. Revised and updated July 8, 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. […] But what is culture anyway?  Culture is simply the personality of the group. It’s the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that animate the organization, bring it to life, and and guide its actions. Every group has a culture — and most of us are part of more than one group. […]

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