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The Anatomy of Organizational Culture

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Forming an Organizational Culture for an inter-culturally complex world, Part 1 of 2

Culture is not driven by a list of values and their definitions. Behavior drives culture. You must take your organization on a journey to discover together which behaviors you would like to pursue as the embodiment of your organization's values.

Illustrate your values, don’t define them

We have found over and over again that the actual words that organizations use to describe their values are actually not as important as they used to think.

For instance, one in six (1 in 6) of all global firms use the word "integrity" as one of their value words. However, whenever we encounter companies who use that word as a value, we find that most employees do not know what behaviors they have to display in order to "score high" on integrity.

There is an assumption that people just sort of understand the values they are supposed to uphold, and what is involved in upholding them. There is an assumption that a slick definition (often put together by a marketing or branding firm) is good enough for people to implicitly understand what it means to act with, for example, integrity. And of course, this assumption is not true.

You could take any potential organizational value — for example, "excellence," "customer service," "integrity," "people-focused," or “innovation" — and no matter what you choose as a value, it is vitally important to establish what specific behaviors exemplify that value in the context of your organization.

The question is not, “Did we choose the right values?" The real question is, "Did we wrestle long enough with those values so that we know how to behave when it comes to those values?"

For instance, “integrity” might be one of your chosen values. Think of three, four, five specific behaviors that you want to see amongst your employees that would embody integrity for your organization. When you determine the behaviors you want to see in your personnel, you can actually search for those as you recruit people. It gives you a handle on what those desired values should look like.

It’s very hard to create a behavioral interviewing grid around single words or phrases — "integrity”, “respect”, “innovative”, “people-centric”, “customer-oriented”, or what have you. However, you can in fact create a behavioral interviewing grid around behaviors. All those words mean nothing, unless you explicitly identify and illustrate specific behaviors underneath them.

It’s vital to go through a process where your values are fleshed out in practical, approachable, and do-able terms. And when you have taken that journey as an organization to discover together which behaviors should drive your Organizational Culture, then you can "hire into" your OC.

Use Inter-Cultural Intelligence to gather proposed behaviors that will drive your culture

First, create an engagement process through which everybody in the organization feels safe to contribute — because the process itself is designed to provide an environment that gives value to individuals and their contributions (see our discussions of the “Third Culture Space”). Some culture-specific behaviors may be unfamiliar to different groups, or generally misinterpreted, thereby making those who exhibit them apprehensive about proposing them; give everyone a chance to contribute.

There is an art to creating such an engagement process in an inter-cultural environment. Too often, these processes are designed without any Inter-Cultural Intelligence (ICI)! Unfortunately, these attempts to engage can do more harm than good. For example, the process might involve blanket questionnaires that are designed from an Innocence-Guilt mindset, with emphases on Achieved Status and Directive Destiny. Or, a Direct Communication Style might be employed in running engagement sessions.

Far too often, the only people that contribute are those who think and operate the same way culturally as the people who designed the process and who are facilitating it. Others in the organization do not contribute; they sit in silence. Designing the optimal engagement process really is an art, and ICI is a vital part of doing it well.

Use Inter-Cultural Intelligence to interpret the gathered input and to establish desired behavior

First, you designed the process in such a way that people feel safe to start talking and contributing from their hearts (“from the floor”, so to speak). Once you've gathered that information, then you need an ICI way to interpret it.

Now, we love to gather written or verbal feedback and put it all into a textual analyzer. The beauty of today's textual analysis software is that you can gather hundreds and thousands of words and quickly perform various kinds of analytics. But the results will still need the application of ICI to guide you regarding the choice and use of different words, and their cultural interpretation; to provide you with a contextual framework for the way different people describe things, actions, or situations.

That’s one way we work with organizations — not to prescribe, but to give; to create an ICI process that allows them to discover what behaviors they want to pursue as a group. One goal of such a process is to eventually formulate a Team (or Organizational) Behavioral Charter (see our discussions of the Team Charter).

Anyone should be able to pick up a team charter (typically a one-pager) and say, "Ok, these are the values we want to pursue, and this is what that looks like“; or, "These are the rallying points that are important to our organization, and, oh, here are the things underneath each one of these words that I need to be doing in order to live out our values.” Anybody who is new to the organization should be able, with very little help, to pick up that document and say, "Oh, this is what you guys mean by being ‘people-centric’”; or, "This is what you guys mean when you talk about being 'respectful' toward each other. I get it."

Thus, careful interpretation requires the guidance of a person experienced in navigating a number of potential pitfalls through Inter-Cultural Intelligence. With that in mind, you can much more confidently assess where your organization is today, and how you might want to move forward with globalizing the DNA of your organization.


Quickly becoming the global preferred choice for Inter-Cultural Intelligence development, KnowledgeWorkx promotes mutual understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.



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