How Culture Drives Organizational Decision-Making

by Barbara Bissonnette - Date: 2007-04-11 - Word Count: 436 Share This!

"Tell me about your company's culture," I asked Rick, the president of a rapidly growing software company. "Our culture is about our people," he beamed, "we hire the best and give them a chance to make significant contributions to our growth."

Corporate culture is frequently misunderstood to be a motivational statement that espouses a management ideal, as in the example above. Culture, though, is really about "how things get done around here" and the assumptions that drive organizational decision-making.

Company owners and senior executives strongly influence culture. Employees are quick to notice what leaders pay attention to, what they measure and in particular what they reward. Changing cultural dynamics is a long process and according to some organizational consultants only happens when there's a 50% or greater turnover in employees.

Anyone who's been involved with a merger or acquisition has likely witnessed cultural clashes. Without a clear, compelling vision for a unified organization, the two sides may never come together. More than three years after the merger of two financial firms, employees still referred to each other as "the Company X" and "the Company Y" people.

Physical surroundings can provide clues to an organization's culture. At one engineering firm, the reception area consists of two chairs in a foyer. A sign near locked doors leading to the offices says "ring bell for service." Inside, rows of gray cubicles line silent, gray-carpeted halls, and the walls are devoid of artwork. I was not surprised when a Vice President told me, "This is an intense place to work."

Managers downplay the importance of culture at their own risk. Employees are happiest and the most productive when there's a good fit between their values and organizational norms. And there are plenty of cases where entrenched cultural paradigms have impeded business growth.

If you've been taking your culture for granted, here are some questions that can help you gain insight into your operating assumptions. These questions can serve as the basis for informal interviews conducted among your key people, or be used in the development of a cultural audit performed by a business coach or consultant.

1) What are our priorities? What do we pay attention to (and not)?

2) How do decisions get made? Who makes them? How do problems get solved?

3) What gets recognized and rewarded in this company? What's not acceptable? What are the unwritten rules?

4) Is our management style hierarchical and controlling or flat and facilitative?

5) Can people really say what they think?

6) What does it take to be successful here?

7) How much change is desired and tolerated?

8) What is it like to work here? Why do people come and why do they leave?

Related Tags: values, management, merger, acquisition, norms, decision-making, corporate culture, success factors

Barbara Bissonnette is a certified executive coach and the principal of Forward Motion Coaching ( She helps executives and business owners manage time, stress, and other people more effectively. Clients typically increase their efficiency, become effective delegators, and find that they accomplish more with less effort.

Barbara is a popular speaker on management topics, and is the author of The Case for Business Coaching, How It Can Improve Your Performance, Productivity & Profitability which is available at no charge through her Web site.

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