The psychological qualities of love, trust, spirit and courage are what make humans different from other living creatures. Residing in the mind and soul, these defining human attributes allow us to dream, create, progress, and survive in almost any environment. We not only observe and react to our environment but also interact with and manipulate it. We consciously change our environment to help us face life’s challenges. We inherit some attributes, while developing others as we mature through various tests and trials. From these trials arise great philosophers, creators, and explorers.
When forming groups and businesses, people merge their psychological qualities into a cohesive identity, a culture. A positive culture holds people together, providing a common framework within which we interact with each other and the world around us. The first attempt to explain the meaning of culture was in the 1st century B.C. by the Ancient Roman philosopher and orator, Cicero, who used an agricultural metaphor cultura animi to explain the highest possible ideal for human development. In Cicero’s view, culture is not bounded by the nation’s frontiers, but spans much further.
In the days of the Roman Empire’s glory, Julius Caesar spoke highly of Cicero’s achievements, saying, “It is more important to have greatly extended the frontiers of the Roman spirit (ingenium) than the frontiers of the Roman Empire.” Thus, culture is formed by groups or nations, and has a direct influence not only on those who form and live within its geographical boundaries, but also on all those who interact with that culture.
The meaning of culture did not change much through the centuries; the very word meant “place tilled” in Middle English, and the same word goes back to Latin colere, “to inhabit, care for, till, worship.” Culture is the result of people’s psychological interests, their understanding of human nature and of the world around them. In turn, culture influences people’s behavior and attitudes and guides them in the satisfaction of their psychological needs. People often adopt habits from other cultures as well. This can be seen in the use of foreign languages, habits, clothes, food, and practices.
Culture influences people’s actions and vision, minds and hearts, whether as a small group or an entire nation. In fact, one could say that an organization’s culture is its soul, and whoever controls the culture controls the soul. Thus, controlling the culture has been a primary goal of leaders of all types throughout history.
In 1914, more than a century ago, the poet Osip Mandelshtam (Mandelshtam1973) wrote in his untitled poem:
Let the names of flowery cities
Caress the ear with fleeting glory.
It is not Rome the city that’s immortal,
But man’s presence in the universe.
Kings try to get man in their power,
Priests find excuses for their wars,
And yet without him hearths and altars,
Like wretched rubble, are beneath contempt.
From the Organisational Anatomy (Konovalov 2016) standpoint, culture is viewed as a catalyst for performance, and can either strengthen the organization or weaken it. As it has a direct and crucial impact on the utilization of organizational resources and development of capabilities, culture gives energy and strength to an organization, allowing it to move forward successfully through the market’s many challenges. Strong and productive culture stimulates the enhancement of productivity by homogenizing the best psychological qualities of employees, the sense of corporate unity and belonging, internal cooperation, and employees’ loyalty, thus forming the organizational soul. Organizational culture is the most crucial ingredient of success, giving life to all of its many processes.
How does culture differ between organizations? People differ in their emotional and psychological richness; nations differ in their cultural diversity representing high and low-context cultures; and organizations also differ in terms of the diversity of professional context. For instance, think about medical consultants, seamen, priests, pilots, or stock exchange traders. We can envision the complex nature of their duties and understand they cannot be performed using a simple protocol or operation manual. The culture of organizations specializing in these spheres of activity can be viewed as high-context. Each word, the manner of interaction and professional language, reflects specific responsibilities, urgency of actions, uncertainty, and the overall complexity of business.
A human’s character changes with maturity, particularly after the individual has gone through tough challenges and subsequent reflection on them. Adults leave teenage manners and habits behind, and then their values, norms, and principles reflect maturity. The same happens with organizations. Culture matures with the organization, becoming prominent and clearly articulated.
We cannot see someone’s soul nor feel a spirit, whether by observing a body or through an X-ray. We sense it while interacting with people. Likewise, the same happens within organizations. We cannot see it, but we can feel the spirit of the organization. A positive organizational culture motivates employees to achieve excellence, while enriching productive partnerships and customer relations, thus making the organization excel beyond its rivals. As culture and its influence span beyond the organizational boundaries, not only do the organization’s members feel it, but all of the organization’s stakeholders are able to sense it and are affected by it.
Sustainable development depends on an organization’s ability to attract and retain the best people, says Jonathan Ben Zvi, CEO of All Forward. However, unless the spirit or culture motivates people to stay and perform to the best of their abilities, an organization’s development will be stunted. People are the main ingredient of all processes, and without good people and their qualities and effort, even the best thought-through processes will not be effective.
Different organizations have very contrasting cultures just as humans have very different personalities. As such, an organization’s strength, performance, limits, and potential for development will all vary. One develops capacities for fighting and prosperity, where another is equipped only to follow a flow rather than to lead, picking up bad habits along the way. We’ve all more than likely heard about situations where someone big and physically strong has been outfought by someone of smaller size and weight. It all comes down to a strong character and the motivation to win. The same happens with organizations. A strong culture can help a small organization triumph where larger groups falter.
Do “Dark Kingdoms,” i.e. organizations with negative cultures, exist in the organizational world? Realistically, of course they do, but people tend to avoid talking about them. Most management literature tends to discuss culture in a positive or inspirational light, neglecting the fact that few organizations have “a totally bright personality.” There is no empirical data on the percentage of organizations with a negative culture, but I’m sure we have all had experiences with companies that we now prefer to avoid. Undoubtedly, the number of such firms may be greater than we can imagine. As consumers, most of us have encountered incidents of lousy repair work, unreturned phone calls, and the like. Perhaps, if we work for such an organization, we could relate to a statement such as: “Successfully survived for a year, working for company X in the capacity of a manager, and it was like being behind the enemy frontline.”
When an organization’s culture is negative or demotivating in nature, it will not stimulate the generation of the driving energy that pushes the organization to continually grow and improve. Rather, it works as a destructive power which serves to limit organizational productivity and makes resource utilization processes excessively costly. Creativity, enthusiasm, cooperation, and mutual support are replaced by excessive control and inefficient internal coordination.
Organizational culture is not inherited from previous generations like culture is in a society, but formed by the organization’s founders and leaders who are the first generation of the micro-society. Culture is the result of conscious choices and efforts, rather than a slow development. They form the initial boundaries and rules responsible for shaping culture and nurturing it through the stages of the organization’s maturity. Building a sustainable business and winning people’s hearts will always remain key tasks for all leaders. The leaders’ job is to make dreams come true and culture is the most versatile and powerful tool in their hands.
A leader can be a perfect strategist who is capable of moving horizons, but if this leader cannot feel and care for the corporate culture, success will remain illusory. Just as with a human soul, organizational culture demands exercise, regular maintenance, and careful development.
An organization cannot go to a psychologist. In effect, a manager’s role is to be the organization’s psychologist, if you will, as it is the leader who diagnoses its ills and works to heal its psychological problems. Culture, or the psychological state of the organization, defines the productiveness of its internal environment. The last thing we want to see is for it to be fragmented.
Unfortunately, the duty of cultural caretaking frequently appears at the very bottom of a list of priorities, or is oftentimes completely neglected. Managers tend to think that employees’ respect and loyalty can be taken for granted, which leads to the development of a negative or counterproductive culture. For instance, looking at the structure of some organizations we can see strongholds which actually separate managers from their own people, hence discouraging cultural unity inside the organization. It is the duty of the manager to enrich and stimulate the development of the organizational soul by cultivating and nurturing real values and appropriate attributes which are valued and respected by all employees. If leaders concentrate on the application of fake, inappropriate attributes, such characteristics will lead to the organization’s self-destruction.
A number of questions arise. What are the factors and qualities that demand the most attention and care? What values are the most relevant in the specific context of an organization? What attributes are primary and which are secondary? How can we treat culture to make it advantageous?
Aristotle stated, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Differences in quality of resources, environmental and market changes, and technological progress lead to a rethinking of an organization’s processes. However, this consistency of organizational development and level of performance cannot be achieved without positive organizational culture, which is a superpower in itself. Only with such a culture can the desired excellence be achieved on a consistent basis.
Symbols and values are actual drivers and stimulators that define the direction of organizational development. Attributes are responsible for supporting values and making them visible to members of a given organization. If values and attributes are not formulated correctly, then the organization is at risk of not achieving a desired level of performance. The most difficult task for leaders in this context is to formulate values and attributes which will be effective and relevant on a long-term strategic horizon.
Organizational culture is often ignored at the cost of losing control over the organization, which then will become ineffective and unable to perform, eventually leading to organizational death. Certainly, we do not want culture to become a processes inhibitor which works against organizational goals.
Dear reader, are you prepared to mistreat or ignore this invisible ingredient of your business success? A new book on culture management, CORPORATE SUPERPOWER, discusses factors defining and shaping organizational culture, symptoms of counterproductive culture, cultural values and attributes, specific cultural qualities of organizations, corporate ideology, the role of leaders in defining and maintaining culture in their organizations, and culture-related risks and problems. It is for those who value people and aim to enhance the superpower of organizational culture, boosting performance as a result.