Understanding Organizational Culture

Being People-Ready means executing on proactive strategies to have the right people, with the right skills and competencies, at the right place and at the right time...

Defining Culture

A number of definitionsIn 1973 anthropologist Clifford Geertz published The Interpretation of Cultures in which he writes: “Culture is the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action” and that culture is “an ordered system of meaning and of symbols in terms of which social interaction takes place.” have been debated over the last few decades but a survey of these different definitions shows common threads. Civis defines organizational culture as:

The unique combination and interaction of values, behaviors and artifacts that contribute to the social and psychological environment of an organization. It includes values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs, habits and levels of workforce engagement. It is expressed in its expectations, self-image, inner workings and interactions with the outside world. It is also the pattern of collective behaviors and assumptions that is taught to new members as “the right way” of perceiving, thinking and feeling. Culture can be considered the “glue” that holds an organization together and the “compass” that provides directions.

3 Building Blocks of Culture

It is the unique combination of values, behaviors and artifacts that create the complex whole (and resulting dynamics) we call organizational culture.


  • Control Systems: Rules, monitoring processes, level of empowerment, developing new ideas, personal expression and freedom of thoughts, flow of information
  • Organizational structures: Reporting structures, hierarchies, workflows
  • Power structures: Who makes decisions, scope of power, and what power is based on
  • Symbols: Tangible (organizational logos, designs, etc.) and intangible (parking spaces, corner offices, personal assistants, executive washrooms, perks & benefits, etc.)
  • Stories & Myths: Word-of-mouth and “water cooler” build up about people and event that convey a message about what is valued within the organization


  • Rituals & Routines: customs, management meetings, board reports, operational processes, etc. that may be rooted in habits rather than performance
  • Engagement: how committed employees are towards collective objectives
  • Risk taking: openness to change, innovation, tolerance of diversity, trust
  • Creativity: compromise knowledge, learning style, problem-solving process and creativity techniques
  • Collaboration: flexibility, sharing creativity, disposing of mental models
  • Communication: ideas management, authenticity, open to positive conflicts
  • Planning Vs. Acting: having the right skills, resources and motivations to act (includes level of support, decision making and environmental factors encouraging or discouraging cultural growth)


  • Cultural fit: early assessments, recruitment for two-way fit
  • Influence: leadership competency, training programs, mentoring/role modeling, code of conduct, ethics committee, punishment and reward system, mission statements

“Culture affects the organization's productivity and performance, and provides guidelines on customer care and service, product quality and safety, including concerns for the environment. It impacts employee attendance, effort, punctuality, engagement and pride in their work. It also extends to production-methods, marketing and advertising practices, and to new product creation.”

Civis provides cultural competency programs with top-down understanding of human capital fundamentals, cultural leaders that can influence, and culture-enabling tactics rooted in practicality. For more information on cultural competency programs, contact a member of our team.

While Artifacts and Behaviors are observable, the espoused Values of an organization, including assumptions, beliefs and attitudes, are hidden and much more complex to assess or quantify. Furthermore their personal nature often involves a high degree of emotional sensitivity which adds to the complexity of change initiatives.