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How to define organisational culture

Culture & mindset development 14th February 2020

Why is organisational culture important?

Every organisation has a culture but could you describe yours?

According to Deloitte, fewer than one third of executives understand the culture of their own workplace, even though they recognise its importance.

An in-depth understanding of your existing workplace culture is vital if you are thinking of changing it. Many companies, however, tend to neglect this in their natural enthusiasm for creating a vision of where they want to be. Culture change can bring real benefits but making a success of it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without a clear view of what is working and not working in your current situation.

What is organisational culture?

An organisation’s culture is a complex thing as illustrated by Edgar Schein’s iceberg model (Fig.1).


There is more to a company’s culture than the tangible, visible signifiers – our conscious behaviour, our working style, and the symbolic elements such as dress code or office layout. Underlying these are the ideologies and aspirations we embrace and the stories we share, even if they are not always front of mind. Deeper still, way ‘below the waterline’ are the unconscious beliefs and assumptions we simply take for granted. We are usually unaware of this layer as we go about our day-to-day work – but these beliefs fundamentally determine our view of the world and how we behave.

To define your organisational culture, you need to consider the whole iceberg. This will uncover the hidden assumptions that may support, or conflict with, the direction you want your organisation to take. In-depth exploration will bring them to the surface where they can be understood and then addressed or enhanced, depending on how helpful they are.

How to define an organisational culture 

Most organisations considering culture change put a great deal of energy into defining their aspirations – what they want their culture to look like in the future. They may start with a survey or interviews, sometimes seeking input from across the organisation but often only involving the leadership. Behind-closed-doors discussions generate a set of values that translate into the ways everyone is expected to behave in this new culture. These are then typically imposed on the organisation as a top-down directive and embedded into systems and processes like recruitment and performance management.

The problem with this approach, even when a wider team is involved, is the assumption that you are starting with a blank canvas. The fact is that, unless you are a start-up, you already have a culture that you need to consider.

Of course, you have to develop a clear vision of your possible future but it’s just as important (in tandem) to conduct a thorough analysis of what you already have – the existing culture.

Seeing the good in what’s already there

A clear appreciation of how your culture relates to and supports your performance as a business will help you define the aspects of your culture that need to change if you are going to enhance performance and deliver your strategy and purpose. Critically, it will also reveal what about the culture is working well and can be preserved, amplified and replicated.

How do you analyse your culture?

The object of your analysis is to gain a view of your culture from the top to the bottom of the iceberg. What is really going on across your organisation? How close are you to where you believe that you want to be? What deep-rooted, unconscious attitudes and beliefs are driving the normal, habitual behaviours in the organisation that may, or may not, be what you need and want?

In analysing organisational cultures, we recommend three complementary approaches which, in combination, will provide a useful picture of what’s actually happening in an organisation in all its complexity.

Qualitative data: Bespoke culture diagnostic surveys gather a broad perspective and help you form hypotheses about what needs to change. This data can guide your search for those critical bright spots and problematic low points in your existing culture. They also help you to set a benchmark for measuring the progress of any culture change programme.

Appreciative inquiry is a qualitative methodology that allows you to unpick what’s below the waterline level of the culture iceberg, revealing assumptions and beliefs that are fundamentally influential but often unconscious or unacknowledged. Appreciative inquiry allows an uncovering of the positives, the bright spots that reflect your ideal culture and ways of working, even if they are few and far between or just faint glimmers. And it gives you a much stronger sense of the validity of the hypothesis you have formed through quantitative data.

Observation is a useful tool. Watching how people go about their daily work and how they relate to each other will reveal what actually happens in an organisation, as opposed to what people tell you. We also encourage and support the teams we work with to become more observant in the longer term. Being more aware of what is going on makes it easier to gauge the health of your culture, notice the unconscious assumptions being made and act accordingly.

What your analysis will tell you

Culture change is challenging. After all, you are seeking to modify attitudes and behaviour that may be ingrained and largely unconscious. A strong analysis will provide an insight into what is normal and habitual in your organisation. By helping you to understand what existing factors are helping or hindering your performance and strategy, and what bright spots you can amplify, it will enable you to devise a culture change programme that’s focussed, pragmatic and builds on what already exists and is serving you well in your organisation.

Once you have identified the behaviour and the beliefs to encourage and enhance, you can define and implement mechanisms to make them happen more often or more widely. The ultimate aim is to normalise them across your organisation. At which point, they will have become an integral part of your culture.

Learn more about organisational culture change

At Rubica, we are on a mission to equip organisations with the confidence, enthusiasm, tools and know-how to get on with making complex organisational change together. If your organisational culture needs a change, get in touch or download ‘How to change a workplace culture’.

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How to change a workplace culture


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