Exploring your organisation’s culture – who are you?


There’s a great onboarding activity in which new recruits are asked to explore their recently joined organisation as if they were anthropologists looking for artefacts, rituals and beliefs. The new joins scatter around the company – complete with pith helmets in some cases – to observe and interview, collect and record. Apart from being a good example of accelerated or even pull learning – and far, far better than the more common hours of PowerPoint designed to kill every last ounce of pre-start excitement at joining the organisation – what they report back is typically much more enlightening to the onboarding hosts than the fresh recruits. “They said that?!” “That’s how it appears to you?!” “Really? Is that how you would interpret that?!”

Everyone wins – the organisation saves itself a fortune in consultancy fees by having a group of relatively objective, still unmoulded eyes deliver a cultural assessment, while the new joins typically get a more accurate illustration of the status quo than the onboarding and recruitment team have been portraying. In defence of easily maligned consultants – poor things – we could say that the selection process has likely or even hopefully brought in candidates suited to their new environment, and so just how unbiaised their starting viewpoint is can be questioned a priori

Still, it’s always fascinating to learn how outsiders view your organisation’s culture. True, activities such as the above often concentrate on the superficial artefact layer of culture with only a hint at the deeper levels of the iceberg (see my earlier blog for the metaphor of culture as an onion – https://www.juliankingcoaching.com/organisational-cultures-beyond-the-individual/). Yet the information you garner can be as equally surprising as insightful. Too often we lose sight of who we are and what we are doing through habit and repetition. Water is the last thing a fish notices, as I love to quote. In the same way that a holiday allows you to step outside your routine and get a more dispassionate picture of your life back home, so a cultural assessment run by an impartial outsider can show, for example, how far the company might have strayed in practice from its professed beliefs and values.

There really are many reasons why an organisation might wish to conduct such an exercise and why in turn culture matters to us. From exploring possible partners in a proposed M&A activity to fostering interdepartmental relations to understanding customer perceptions better to…Such evaluations can reflect where you are historically. Organisations change. We might start as hothouse incubators but can soon develop into hierarchical, procedural Eiffel Towers (see the above blog again) without us noticing. Similarly, we might view ourselves as diverse and innovative, and then learn that in effect, we are not. Or even worse, that our organisational culture is holding us back, hampering innovation, stifling fresh ideas. Fortunately, we don’t often hear nowadays that terrifying comment, “Because that’s how we do things around here”. Most of us realise and accept that change is part of our corporate brief and reality.

One of the strongest reasons to undertake a full exploration of your organisational culture is to structure and codify the various elements. As with any process or factor, defining a cultural element in clearly visible and measurable terms allows you to more effectively and meaningfully address that element as necessary. Too often we hear vague, impressionistic descriptions of a company’s culture which do not allow us to root out drivers and consequences.

Many cultural assessment tools (e.g. THT’s Intercultural Awareness Profiler) ask respondents to identify both their ideal and current surrounding organisational cultures. This can be a powerful tool, for example, in  clarifying the background to issues that have arisen, either on a personal or team level. However, if there is a strong disconnect between the ideal and reality, then you will likely have motivation and retention issues.

On a more perceptual level, apart from onboarding and surveying current employees, a useful insight into your organisational culture can come from those who have been unsuccessful or even withdrawn from the recruitment process. Similarly, exit interviews, so often brushed over in haste, can also shed much needed light. Or then again, beyond your EVP, look at your brand in the market. What does it say about you? How true is it? If you think it does not reflect your reality, what do you have to prove that?

If all this sounds like too much work and too many resources, then one of my former sales bosses might have the answer. He always maintained that he could tell everything he needed to know about an organisation from walking into its reception and spending a minute or two with the receptionist (for some reason this process always took longer if the receptionist was blonde). As with your customer service desk or your flight attendants if you’re an airline, you will be surprised how often the client-facing team encapsulate your true organisational culture. Indeed, there is a famous story from the 1980s, possibly apocryphal, about an ad agency keeping British Rail executives waiting in a specially unwelcoming reception room for hours to give them an idea of what the real BR experience was then like.

And yes, my boss’s bravado was in turn indicative of our sales department’s culture…

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.