Culture is like an iceberg, there’s a part that is visible above the surface but there’s a whole lot more of the iceberg that is harder to see below the surface. I studied German language in college and learned about that country’s history and customs. Later, I had the opportunity to study for a semester in Germany. I only learned about the tip of the German iceberg in college, when I lived in the country, hung out with German people, and traveled about their country, I was exposed to much more of the culture below the surface.
Culture is really about how people interact with each other. Individuals have personalities that they express, groups of people have cultures that they express together. Culture is the set of norms, behaviors, and expectations that governs a group’s interactions. All groups have a culture, including your family, school, club, church, and your business. We’ve all experienced organizational culture in the workplace. Think about your favorite chain, fast-food restaurant. You’ve visited some of those stores and found the service fast and friendly, the dining area and restrooms clean, and the food of good quality. You’ve also visited that same franchise in another location, and found conditions dirty, the food poor, and service sour. What’s the difference? It’s the culture established by the local manager. The franchise (surface culture) is the same, but the local store and their leadership (below surface culture) is very different.
The visible part of organizational culture includes the official organizational structure, the policies, standard operating procedures, job descriptions, and even the physical appearance of the business. The bigger and more important parts of organizational culture are below the surface and harder to see. These include attitudes, stories, and habits that build up among the team to form the culture. Things like:
- Is it OK to cut corners on the job or is quality work expected every time?
- Are expectations made clear and consistent or is everything subject to how the manager feels today?
- What happens when the going gets tough due to financial strain or overwork? Does the team rally together and lift each other up, or do they start to back bite and jockey for position?
- Are communications clear and upfront, or are conflicts allowed to simmer and fester just below the surface?
High performing leaders are very tuned-in to their organization’s culture and they act to shape it. It’s important to build an organized and professional business culture because it clarifies exactly what is expected of every team member and encourages their best performance. It’s even more important to reinforce the surface parts of the organizational culture by making sure that the larger, below surface parts are consistent with it. The daily attitude of the leader and his/her willingness to clarify expectations, encourage positive behaviors, and discourage negative behaviors are all-important in building a high-performing organizational culture.