February 12, 2013

Artifacts, Legends and Rituals: Keys to your Company Culture

Archaeologists and Anthropologists study past civilizations, deciphering clues from what was left behind.  Remember the well-known character in the Indiana Jones movies, and how he used ancient maps, legends and other clues to find mythical treasures?  Those themes are the substance of great movies, … and great careers in business.

Companies have cultures that are unique to them.  I define company culture as a set of shared beliefs and behaviors that determine how business is done in the organization.  The culture is the “unpublished, informal employee handbook and organization chart,” showing who really has power.  Often, the unpublished handbook and org charts don’t resemble the published versions very much.  In most cases, employees who are either discerning enough to learn the culture or fortunate enough to have someone explain “the deal” to them can succeed.  Conversely, employees who don’t learn the culture typically run into glass walls, and find themselves on a smooth glass chute that empties onto the job search market.

Company cultures can be read; just check out the offices of the most successful persons incorporate culture the organization.  Those offices are full of artifacts, tangible clues about what the organization values.  If you see awards on their shelves, it’s a safe bet that achievement is the currency for success.  See any family photos?  How about technical manuals?  Don’t forget to examine the state of the desks; are they cluttered?  Maybe (at least) the image of business/ productivity is currency there.  In any event, look for the artifacts.  It can be tricky to interpret them, but they don’t lie.

Every company has stories about the founders, pivotal times in their history, memorable employees and other rich subjects.  These stories, or legends, tell you key information about what the organization values and why.  Corporate legends often have morals, not unlike Aesop’s Fables.  Pay attention to the stories told in your organization; learn from “that guy’s” mistakes, and work to understand the reasons why the story is seen as worth telling.

Rituals are organized group activities that the company repeats.  They could be synchronized smoke breaks, Wednesday afternoon golf, beers on Friday, impromptu lunch meetings or any type of planned gathering.  Pay attention to who is invited; rituals are typically reserved for insiders only.  Some rituals involve recognition of select cultural insiders, further reinforcing what the organization values.  Usually, key decisions are made and vital information is shared at these ritual events.  Any employee who misses out on ritual events is not likely to advance in the organization.

For leaders who have been in the company for a while, the corporate culture seems like second nature.  That can be a dangerous thing, particularly if the leaders are blind to obstacles that impede the advancement of new employees.  What if the artifacts are shot glasses, the company legends are about binge drinkers, the rituals take place in bars after work and the newest employee is a recovering alcoholic?  What is the likelihood of that employee succeeding in the company?  (Food for thought; what if the company culture routinely places barriers in the way of some employee group defined as a protected class?)

Increase your value to your company, as well as your personal chances to succeed; develop skills to interpret company cultures.  Cultural competency is not just for Sales professionals; it is for business leaders.   Look up cultural competency, and apply what you learn to your work environment.

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