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At The Diversity Movement, we talk often about how to “improve organizational culture,” “build a more inclusive culture,” and “unlock workplace cultures of excellence.” In fact, I’d say “culture” is one of our biggest points of focus, and that’s because we know how important it is for organizations that want to succeed in the modern marketplace. 

Corporate culture makes a critical difference in a business’s potential to attract top talent, nurture productivity and collaboration, insist on excellence, reach its growth goals, and expand its market reach. We teach the organizations we work with how to shift their existing cultures to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive so that every employee is encouraged and able to contribute their best possible work. Yet, we also understand that “culture” can be a slippery term: sometimes ambiguous, jargony, and vague, other times clear but overused.

Each one of us is part of many different cultures: ones that exist at the national level, organizational levels (like work and local community cultures), and ones that are specific to our identity groups. For instance, I am part of American national culture, The Diversity Movement’s organizational culture, and the group cultures of motherhood, married people, women, running, fitness, the middle class, the Millennial generation, people who were raised in the South, and more. Some of my culture groups are more important to me than others. I identify more strongly with them because I feel more aligned with the pervasive culture of that group. (You’ll notice I put running and fitness ahead of my identity as a Southerner.) 

Creating the right business culture is important because employees can simply opt out if they don’t feel aligned with your organization’s cultural values. I cannot opt out of being from the South, even if I do not strongly identify with most Southern cultural values. But, if I feel like the culture of my workplace doesn’t align with my personal values, I can easily go find a place that does. 

As part of Global Diversity Awareness Month, which gives us an opportunity to celebrate cultural diversity and each person’s multiple, intersecting cultural identities, let’s take a deeper look at what culture is, where it lives, and why it matters.

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Defining culture

As social psychologist Geert Hofstede explains, culture is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” Hofstede, who passed away in February 2020, was one of the preeminent cultural researchers in modern history and most well-known for his cultural dimensions theory, which he developed by studying employee values at IBM in the 60s and 70s. In his six decades of psychological research, Hofstede studied both national and organizational cultures, designing conceptual frameworks to understand both.

I’ll oversimplify the depth of his work, but in brief, what cultural dimensions theory teaches is that national cultures differ on six key dimensions, each of which exists along a spectrum:  large v. small, strong v. weak, individualism v. collectivism, masculinity v. femininity, long-term v. short-term orientation, and indulgence v. restraint. National cultures differ primarily in their values, and customs are seen as an expression of those values. Each person’s membership in a national culture is involuntary and typically programmed before they can be cognizant of it. That means, our national values are deeply ingrained. 

Organizational cultures differ around six different dimensions (again, each one of which exists along a spectrum). Organizations are: process v. results-oriented, employee v. job-oriented, parochial vs. professional, open v. closed system, loose v. tight control, and pragmatic vs. normative. Where national culture is programmed in early childhood, organizational culture is “acquired through socialization at the work place, which most people enter as adults—that is, with their basic values firmly in place.” Also, where national cultures focus on values, “organization cultures differ mostly at the level of the more superficial practices: symbols, heroes, and rituals.” 

Where culture lives

Put simply, corporate culture exists in daily practices like how you conduct meetings and who you reward, promote, and praise as an example of good work. It lives in the small moments of interaction with other people and with each task itself. For instance, what is the pace of work at your business? Who is delegating, and how do they do it? Are people expected to ask for help, and if so, how? Are they rewarded for pushing back on negative behavior? How are you defining exceptional performance, and what tools are you using to incentivize great work?

While national culture may be unconscious and automatic, organizational culture is self-aware, and it can be managed. By using respectful interpersonal behavior, inclusive language, and best practices for modern leadership, we can create more inclusive workplace cultures that, in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions, are employee oriented. Meaning, they make all members of the organization feel personally valued, welcome, and respected. 

These small moments are important because they exist as pervasive, external expressions of what an organization truly values. Another name to know here is Edgar Schein, a former professor and researcher at M.I.T. whose research into organization culture and leadership is central to the field. Schein’s model shows that organizational culture exists at three levels: observable artifacts (like the daily practices mentioned above), espoused values (which are openly stated by organization leadership), and invisible assumptions (which underlie an organization’s espoused values and are not directly observable). 

Assumptions are the things your organization actually believes. As Leadership Center so simply phrases it, they’re “the understood, traditional and unofficial ways of being, doing and feeling” in your organization. This is where your culture actually lives, and it’s what you need to change if you really want to reap the benefits of culture transformation, like better problem solving and decision making. 

Why culture matters

A positive and productive organizational culture is important because what we know about high performance — and high-achieving teams —  is that all people need psychological safety to perform well. Negative environments trigger the amygdala into a fight-or-flight response where we cannot be creative or exceptional. 

As Harvard Business Review phrases it, “When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening […] oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behavior. This is a huge factor in team success.” That is, by creating an organizational culture that encourages diverse thought, curiosity, and collaboration, “you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance,” which of course leads to greater profitability and a stronger bottom line.

In today’s market — and tomorrow’s — the most successful and sustainable organizations are those who know how to create cultures that clear the path and set the conditions for their employees’ best work by treating those employees with dignity and respect, regardless of their background, demographics, or identity terms. But, you cannot create long-term culture change simply by changing the trappings of your culture (the artifacts and espoused values). You have to dig in and change the assumptions as well. 

Perhaps that’s why 60 years of corporate diversity training programs have so often failed. It’s also why The Diversity Movement is different. For us, diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t the end of the journey. It is a means to greater cultural change and a way to create more sustainable organizations at large.

When you’re ready to get started, we’re ready to help. Unlocking workplace excellence is hard. We make it easier.

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