What is organizational culture?

It is a combination of many elements: language, stories, behavior, norms, rituals, and traditions.

Does your company expect that things are done in a certain way? Are there words and statements which seem unique to your organization? Does the boss’s staff meeting always occur on the same day and time on a regular basis? Are there specific stories in the organization which seem to get told over and over about the good old days? If so, these are all examples of organizational culture.

How do you measure the health of any culture?

Do the people you work with as a whole seem energized, friendly, and in good spirits? Is there a feeling of collaboration vs. competition between people? Are people given opportunities to develop? Are people treated fairly? Are people open? Can you easily speak to anyone in the organization? Are there few rules and guidelines for how you do your work? Does the organization share all news and business progress with everyone on a consistent basis? If so, these are all good indicators of a healthy organization.

How do you tell if your organizational culture is unhealthy?

Is there a system of competition between people so there are winners and losers? Is there an annual performance review vs. just on-going open positive oriented feedback?

Does Human Resources Department operate more like the police vs. an enabling resource?

Is there an over-emphasis on individual rewards and punishment?

Is there an emphasis on compliance vs. cooperation? Does the environment seem closed when it comes to communications? Are suggestions and open dialog not welcome? Are people not included or appreciated? Does the environment seem more like job prison than a thriving open system? If so, then these are all examples of an unhealthy work culture.

Which factors influence organizational cultures to be healthy vs. unhealthy?

Some organizations when the sole aim is to increase profits one quarter over the next can bring out the worst in people. Greed, internal negative politics, arrogance and self-serving agendas can create unhealthy work cultures. These cultures create competition between people and the treating of people as resources to be used up vs. appreciated and nurtured. From a systems view this seems rather silly. We have finite resources on this planet we call our collective home and when they are used up, they are gone forever. When organizations place profit over people, everyone in the end loses. In the race to the top to be the best, the strongest, the smartest, the fastest can all contribute to unhealthy work cultures. This sadly has a negative impact to society which can be measured in unhappiness, relationships problems, and illness.

Better to produce products or services which contribute to society

These are the healthier cultures which both show profit and produce value for society. Sadly, there are many organizations which in the race for growth continue to create products and or services which create little value to society. An example of this is how a smart phone silly game application can attempt to go public making billions for early investors. All of this de-values products and or services which can create long-term benefit to society. With so many challenges such as housing, crime, cost of education, food, and basic living needs, we need more focus in these areas which impact greater numbers of people. In these types of work cultures where there is deeper meaning and purpose in work, people are both treated better and they find more fulfillment in what they do. This feeling of contribution enables positive self-worth and a healthy organizational culture.

So what can be done to enable healthier work cultures?

I am hopeful that we will start to see new start-up companies which start out with the sole purpose to create products or services which give back to society vs. those which take away. These will be the healthiest organizational cultures. Short of this, I would continue to encourage organizational leaders to step back and examine the factors which contribute to their current work culture. Behavior, norms, language all influence work culture and how people work together. Most important is how people are nurtured and treated at work. I call this humanistic leadership. This is what influences a positive organizational culture. It helps if people see the connection between the overall mission of the organization and their work.

Humanistic leaders make the development of the management system a priority through the lens and understanding that doing so will enable both people and profit to grow. This is especially important as people reach the middle part of their lives. In midlife people will start to seek greater purpose and meaning in their work. They will seek work cultures which are making a difference in society and not just making money. Both can co-exist but people development must become the focus and top priority over just making money. This is the best path to healthy organizational culture and sustainability for people and the planet.

I’ll be cheering you on as you go!

Craig Nathanson

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