By Cheryl Collins
October 29, 2019
Organizational culture is still the hot topic. As a culture nerd I love that we’re all talking about it. But the mainstream understanding of culture hasn’t quite caught up with what it actually is.
The problem with thinking of culture as the cause of a company problem is that it perpetuates the misuse of the word “culture”, and interestingly enough, it doesn’t make much sense.
Most people have accepted that culture is, “the way we do things around here.” This is a nice, simple, easy way to think of culture. But, it’s not quite accurate. Culture is much more complex than a simple statement. Culture is a broad, deep, ever-shifting system that is ultimately driven by our underlying assumptions (emphasis on underlying).
Edgar Schein, long time organizational culture guru, offers this definition, “Organizational culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved 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 and feel in relation to those problems.” There are entire books dedicated to explaining what all of this means, but to make it more understandable here is a shortened version of the same definition: Culture is a product of joint learning.
Think about how that’s different from “the way we do things around here” definition. “Product of joint learning” implies culture is the result, product, or output of something. The way we do things around here implies culture is the cause of something. Culture, by definition, cannot be the root cause of a problem. Culture cannot be weak or strong, good or bad, it just is. Your culture exists, it’s constantly shifting, and it’s completely the result of how your teams have learned to solve problems, both big and small.
You might be thinking, if culture is the product of joint learning, then could we just change how we learn to change the culture? The short answer is yes. But it’s another example of simple not necessarily meaning easy. Why? Because it involves change. As a species, we humans aren’t wired to embrace change under most circumstances, but that’s a blog post for another day.
For now, just focus on re-framing your understanding of culture. Remember: Product of joint learning. Product of joint learning. Product of joint learning. Product of joint learning. Product of joint learning. Product of joint learning.
Science suggests repetition helps us learn.
We’d love to hear what you think of this definition. Does it align with how you think of culture? How does this definition encourage you to think about culture?
Cheryl helps companies of all sizes with organizational, strategy and leadership development. Her passion for transforming organization culture and psychological safety comes out of her experiences working with people and teams as the CEO of Ninkasi Brewing Company, as well as her roles at Oregon Community Credit Union and Teach for America.