Definition of workplace culture

Written by dr. nicole stelter
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Definition of workplace culture
How we do things around here (Image by, courtesy of matias jaramillo)

Workplace culture is also known as organizational or corporate culture. It is defined as a shared belief system of values and processes within an organisation. It's been described simply as "the way we do things around here." It is a powerful component to any organisation and has both explicit and implicit characteristics.

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Basic Definition and History

The term "workplace culture" was first defined by Edgar Schein in 1992 in his seminal work "Organizational Culture and Leadership." This first definition included the idea that corporate culture is a philosophy to guide organizational strategy, workforce behaviour and management attitudes. An organisation can also contain various subcultures that are defined by hierarchy, power and/or politics within the organisation.

Levels of Culture

Schein further defined workplace culture as consisting of three levels: artefacts, espoused values and basic underlying assumptions. Artefacts are visual organizational structures and processes, some observable and some more implicit and difficult to discern. Espoused values are those organizational philosophies and beliefs readily expressed aloud by management and the workforce. Basic underlying assumptions are the real source of organizational behaviour and beliefs and are often unconscious perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

Determining Workplace Culture

Leadership is considered the key element for defining and driving workplace culture. Another seminal text, "Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life" (1982, by Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy), describes four basic workplace culture types that are based on two important corporate and environmental characteristics: 1) the speed with which feedback or rewards are identified and 2) the degree of uncertainty or level of risk-taking behaviours.

Workplace Culture Types

Deal and Kennedy described these four basic cultural types: 1. Tough-guy macho culture (fast feedback, high risk) 2. Work-hard, play-hard culture (fast feedback, low risk) 3. Process culture (slow feedback, low risk) 4. Bet-your-company culture (slow feedback, high risk)

The challenge of change

Changing workplace culture is thought of as one of the most difficult but perhaps most important leadership challenges in any organisation. Aside from the challenge of assessing culture's implicit components, a renewal or change project should consider these eight issues: 1. Make sure personnel at all levels perceive the need for a change. 2. Create optimism about the culture change process and its intended outcomes. 3. Understand that there will be resistance at both individual and group levels and prepare to look for and manage this resistance. 4. Maintain continuity with some cultural aspects while changing others (e.g. keep important principles while changing how they manifest in practice). 5. Implementing a new culture is a process, not an event, and institutionalising the new culture is a key element for successful change. 6. Incorporate new cultural forms such as symbols, rituals, rites and language. 7. Change workforce socialisation processes to alter the way new people coming into the organisation begin to learn about the culture. 8. Lead in a way that communicates the new cultural perspectives and behaviours in innovative ways. Create confidence and passion for change.

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