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What is Corporate Culture?

Updated on June 28, 2014

Corporate Culture

Each corporation is a society onto itself. It may share some rules in common with other corporations, but there are always those items which will make it unique.

  1. Most cultures grow from within the organization. These norms are created by what has been allowed and what is expected (based on observed rewards and "punishments") within an organization.
  2. There are cultures inserted into the organization. These are non-organically grown norms, at least from the viewpoint of those in the organization, that are adopted for one reason or another.

Lets look at these two types.

Organically Grown Cultures

These are the rules and expectations that every new employee must learn when they join a company. Are smoke breaks allowed? How long and how frequently? How are lunch breaks handled? Can a whole team go out at the same time? How are vacation requests handled? What are the timelines to complete assignments like? And the thousands of nuances that the existing employees know.

When the organization started, they needed to experiment with the rules and expectations. They needed to see what worked, what didn't, and where they may be issues with them. In this way, they changed organically as the company grew. At a certain point, these needed to be fixed either for consistency or size.

As an employee, you want to be treated equally. These rules and expectations allow you to know the behaviors allowed and the framework within which they exist.

These set up the allowed behaviors. Where there is no clear direction, other behaviors might develop. For example, if you see everyone leaving early, you may understand that the culture allows for that. If you see people staying past their normal hours to get work done, you may feel that this is part of the expectations. If these behaviors continue, they will become part of the accepted culture within the organization.

At times, there will be changes made. As the employees make changes, times change, or attitudes change, the culture will as well. Take our second example of people staying late. Occasionally that may be OK. And for may years was an accepted/expected practice in organizations. Then research was done which indicated that there could be problems with that culture. If it continues, then the performance of those individuals will suffer. It may indicate a bad work life balance. The person may burn out and feel overly stressed. They may not perform their best because of overwork. So an adoption of a culture which not only encourages but allows for amply time off and a strict 40 hour work week may need to be adopted. This is grown out of a need within the organization but, based on the previous work ethic, if being artificially placed as part of the new culture.

Non-organically Grown Cultures

A non-organically grown culture is one placed on an organization, even if it was organically grown elsewhere. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, in fact it may be necessary. Take the previous paragraph where making sure people worked only 40 hours per week and had the opportunities to take all the time off they earned. That was not part of the culture but a need was seen to make the work life of the employees better. So the culture was modified.

Probably the best known culture to be adopted was Six Sigma. Motorola, looking to improve the quality of their products, changed their culture. This was successful for them. It was widely published and other's followed suit. GE, arguably one of the largest companies in the world, attempted to adopt this culture.

Please note: This article is not about the success of that process, nor of Six Sigma itself. I use this process only to illustrate the point of adopted cultures.

Some cultures are adopted for wholly different reasons. Some are adopted to put a persons mark on an organization. Some are attempts to replace the entire culture in one piece. In these instances, the culture is being replaced, not necessarily by an internal need within the organization, but by an external influence. Whether a need exists for change, if it is not being called for within the organization, it can be a hard sell.

Take our other example from the previous paragraph of people leaving early. If only certain people or groups are allowed to exercise that privilege, then dissatisfaction could grow within those other groups. Putting a policy in place to set the expectation that everyone will be present for the full 40 hours each week, while causing some issues, would be better for the organization. While this was artificially placed (it ran counter to accepted practice) the dissatisfaction of the other employees meant that it was called for by the organization.


Those items which were grown organically within the organization are accepted on their face. These are the behaviors and expectations everyone has had all along.

The non-organically grown ones, if called for by the employees, are easy adoptions. Those which are transplanted as a one-size-fits-all solution can be more problematic. Employees may not see the need for the change. This may lead to resistance. This may also lead to just blind acceptance. Such acceptance may not be the best thing.

Take the Six Sigma example. It grew out of Motorola's desire to make better products. The company saw the need for improvement and developed this process to address the need. As it was grown organically within the organization, it blended in with the culture of that organization. Its adoption was easy as it was recognized as necessary as well as desired. One picked up wholesale and grafted on to another organization in its entirety may cause culture clashes if the culture it grew up in is too different than the culture being modified.

If sufficiently different, it can lead to culture shock akin to visiting a different country. If it is just accepted, then, in this example, it will bypass the desired behavior, that of energizing people with a process for producing better products. Once that happens, then people are just going through the required motions and disengaging from the process. This would be completely counter to the reason the culture was brought in.


There are lots of cultures out there. Don't forget the culture you already have in place when you find one you like. While it may take longer, it may be best to get an objective look at your current culture before applying a new one. See what you already have, what matches in the new culture, and adopt pieces, the best parts, of the new culture and make them your own. In this way everyone will be engaged in the new culture and embrace the changes.

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