Culture – Defining and Identifying


Culture – when I hear the word I envision a petri dish in a biology lab.

Recently I bumped into a former work colleague at a social function. I asked him how his new job was going. He said, “Great – the culture is totally different from where I worked prior”. Our paths crossed at the same company. He moved on and I was still there. Culture. I became curious.

Culture – So what exactly is it? When you first hear culture, you think of a far away people, an ancient society, a distant land different from your current and from a different time. You think of the food they ate, how they cooked it, their traditional clothes, how they were made, how they were worn, the music they created and the folklore they shared in their evening entertainment. Then someone asks you, “Where do you work?” You tell them. Then they ask, “What is the culture like there?” You stop dead in your tracks. Culture? What do you mean? At least, that’s what I said.

Over the years I had the opportunity to work at many different companies. Little did I know at the time, what I experienced at each was some facet of their culture.

  1. There was my earliest of jobs at a small tech startup of 23 staff. I joined them and 3 months later, I was out of work. They went bankrupt. Yes, I left a stable company, reasonable pay, good benefits and a great group of like-minded techies like myself.
  2. Then there was another tech startup that I interviewed with 3 times. That’s right – THREE times. Several days before Christmas and I was made an offer by the president and his VP in their office. When I asked for several days to decide, the president stared at me for 5 seconds, then decisively pulled the letter back from me saying, “Terry, I think I am going to retract my offer”. I didn’t even get a chance to turn the letter over to read it.
  3. Years later there was the large multinational defense contractor. After being there only 3 years, I eventually realized they were infamous for hiring when the contracts were inked and letting people go once contracts dried up.
  4. Finally there is the large service provider with many departments, process driven, however very informal in those processes. Each group accomplished very similar tasks in each their own way with little consistency of process between them.

All 4 of the above companies were acting out some facet of their “culture”. The first company was gun slinging hiring, despite their debt woes from several years prior. The second company was expecting all employees to drop everything and do exactly what the president expected them to do whether Monday, Saturday, midnight or holiday. The third just rode their contractual wave, without wasting a day carrying employees through any dry spell of work. Finally the fourth had an atmosphere that allowed employees to do whatever they felt, whenever they thought, any way they pleased, without adhering to some common standard practise or process.

From the above, it is obvious that culture is not from a far away land or a distant past. It is right in front of you – today – now. You may not think about it much or think it only comes out at festivals and international events. The best example is your workplace due to the huge amount of daily repetitive hours you spend there. Even the excessively high amount of hours you spend, itself becomes a defining trait of culture. You may hear, “Company ABC, yes, that’s where employees work 70 hour weeks”. Certainly most any organization or time investment, even a volunteer effort we do, has a culture. But because we may spend much less time at a volunteer role, recognizing their cultural traits, may not be so obvious. It may even go completely unnoticed, due mainly to the irregularity of the time spent in that environment. But most every workplace has a culture. Some environments have obvious cultural traits. These are the ones they boast about in their propaganda, company literature, tagline, and public advertisements. Then there are the traits that are buried, hidden, unwritten and difficult to identify. This is where the negative traits are found that employees seldom talk about. “Come work here, spend 10 years like I did and you will discover you cannot be promoted beyond supervisor, unless you know someone at senior level” you may hear. Other environments carry characteristics which are more subtle and may take time for you to notice and see patterns. It can easily take several years before you recognize a trait or facet you can identify as culture.

Now, there is good culture and there is bad culture. Good Culture – ” continuous learning and development regardless of our roles, is part of our culture”. This is how many companies clearly advertise their good culture. It’s usually in their company statement, branding and public advertisements. But what about their “bad culture”? Well, you as an employee will slowly have to observe, sense, witness and confirm their “bad culture”. No company will ever list that for you. That is what you as an employee will chalk up to “experience”. Some companies will be so stubborn, defending their bad culture, to the point that they allow the bad culture to persist while the company continues to lose employees, lose money, fail to evolve their products, overlook new opportunities or re-invent itself as market conditions change. You as an employee have to decide whether you can accept and work with culture you do not agree with. It may not be difficult, but when you do feel the negative culture trait is impeding your growth, your learning, your advancement, countering your morals, ethics or personal excellence, then you may decide to leave. The cost of that negative culture to you is too much for you to accept.

Bad culture has been the culprit in many a company demise. Effort that should have gone into making changes for the long term survival and prosperity of a company or organization, has instead been consumed justifying the culture, defending the status quo, denying there is a problem, looking the other way, ignoring and not dealing with the bad facets of the culture. Many companies may not even acknowledge the bad culture, because if they do, they now have to do something about it. And that is not easy. Culture can be very hard to change. Negative traits and practises may creep into their culture from how they manage their day to day operations and employees. Perhaps there is a fear that if the negative traits of culture are treated and eliminated, the cost may be some good traits also disappearing. If the good traits are stronger and more in number than the negative traits, then that is good. Just add more good traits to compensate for the bad traits. The term “culture” can even become a “safe haven” that some companies hide behind. All traits and attributes, good and bad, get swept under that unifying umbrella called “culture”. Negative traits now become a “hands off” topic. While in that “safe haven”, companies do not have to do anything about it. There is no need to spearhead and drive any change. Change involves risk and risk is bad, some may say. Every company has a culture, right? And culture is a good thing, right? So we don’t have to do anything about it, because, “it’s our culture”. It is just accepted because having a culture is good; end of story.

At one place I worked, I was the sole person managing and leading a new project I was given. I had to analyze trends, find the broken links, design a new process that addresses those broken links, document, then roll out across the various groups involved and educate key users on how to use. My manager and I met regularly for project updates. I would identify where the resistance from affected groups was coming from and how best we could help to get them on-board. Well, on 2 separate occasions, my manager began to defend the group I was having a challenge with. Rather than supporting me, he was defending them. I was baffled, perplexed, shocked and disappointed in the lack of support for my effort. He was impeding and even derailing my effort. My project success was doomed to failure. Eventually I began to identify this as the “culture” of where I worked. It was a large service company with an oligopoly. So it did not like change, or at least at the speed my project was requesting. Meanwhile, the broken links were continuing and staff using the existing process, kept doing things the way they have always been doing things, as inefficient as it was. It was a culture where managers were to play nice with other managers, first and foremost, and not give each other headaches. Due to that negative cultural trait, I had to spend extra energy and time, reshaping my proposed roll out, just to accommodate their negative cultural facet. Consequently, roll out took longer and wasn’t as strong as it should have been. It began to look more like a personal project of mine where I was trying to make a name for myself and not a project fully mandated by management. So rightfully, many did not take it seriously or even buy-in at first, costing me months of progress. What a cost, just to accommodate their negative cultural trait.

So culture is not that far away place you initially envisioned. It’s right in front of you. You live it each and every day in the workplace or where you volunteer. You may not think of it as a culture, but that’s what it is. The positive traits are front and center. But it’s the negative traits that take time and skill to observe and recognize. Some companies exhibit a very subtle culture, where you may need several years to identify the patterns. You have to be observant and cognizant of patterns, of which, many of your coworkers may not be. So ensure you share your candid observations with like minded individuals, otherwise you may be labelled as a heretic. You have to be interested, even care, to be observant and cognizant of all facets of that culture. A large part of starting your career at a new company is observing and learning, “What is their culture?”, then trying to apply yourself the best way possible to mesh and succeed within their culture. Once you do find both positive and negative cultural traits, you learn how to best handle those traits. In so doing you begin to craft and design your own culture, of how you shape your approach, whether you will allow those cultural traits to reshape your own and by how much.