Organizational Culture—Why Leaders Should Pay Attention

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When ASTD asked me to write a blog series on organizational culture and employee engagement, my answer was a resounding, “Yes!” Writing about my favorite topic—culture—in concert with one of the best ways to improve organizational performance—employee engagement—made this blog series a must-do. And I thought the best way to kick off the series was to detail a common definition of organizational culture from which we can all work.

Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, is a leading thinker on organizational culture. In his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th Edition, he defines it as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

This is a great definition containing several key points that provide a concrete understanding of what organizational culture is and how we experience it in the workplace. But if I were to put this definition in front of an organizational leader, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her eyes roll. So, let’s break down the key points to make it a bit easier to digest:

#1: Culture evolves over time

Culture isn’t instantaneous or quickly changed, and it develops slowly through group problem solving and by overcoming adversity. Culture is so deeply rooted that it frequently trumps organizational strategy and change initiatives. (A-Ha moment, anyone?)


#2: Culture is exhibited through patterns

Culture develops out of experiences the group deemed successful and therefore determined them to be “the way to do things” or “the way to think about things.” Because this form of doing, thinking, or feeling worked well in the past, it is repeated over and over again until it becomes a pattern of behavior.

#3: Culture is about basic assumptions, perceptions, thoughts and feelings

Culture is not the organization’s core values or philosophy or norms. It’s deeper. Culture lives in the hearts and minds of the organization’s employees and is often very difficult to explain or define to someone who is not part of that culture. In other words, you have to experience it to fully understand it.

So, if I had to boil it down to a shorter but realistic definition, I would describe culture as an evolutionary pattern of employee assumptions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about how to be successful in the organization. Clear as mud? Well, I hope it’s clearer than that!

Next week, we’ll delve into the relationship between culture, employee engagement, and organizational performance. In the meantime, get engaged in the discussion and let me know how you’ve experience culture in your workplace and where you’ve seen it either foster or inhibit strategy execution and change. Be brilliant!

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About the Author
Paula Pierce is a recognized consultant, coach, and speaker with more than 20 years of experience helping organizations solve their operational problems, change their performance trajectory, and realize success on their terms. Experienced in organizational culture, leadership development, human capital strategy, and change management, she currently serves as the CEO and principal transformation strategist at Peridona Strategies LLC. Paula is passionate about helping organizations and individuals discover their true value and operate from a mindset of service and authenticity. She believes that true satisfaction and success come from using one’s talents to enhance the lives of others and that organizations have that same duty on a larger scale. She coined her company’s tagline—Be Brilliant—as a reminder that the solutions and answers to the problems of individuals, organizations and the world reside inside us, and that when we tap into our inner-brilliance we are best able to influence positive change. Contact her at
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As I have seen, and am now living with, culture that inhibits strategy execution and change, this begs the question: How do you initiate a culture shift (change) when the organizational culture inhibits change? My experience tells me that building a coalition of like-minded people who are not mired in the "old" culture can sometimes have enough influence to drive positive change, even in the face of deeply entrenched resistance. But this can be a hard way to go. Any thoughts on other approaches?
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With change initiatives, the lack of addressing culture when trying to implement a change can also impact the ability to successfully adopt the change across the org. You must first SELL employees on how the change will benefit THEM (ie how changing the way they do things will help them) in order to motivate them to do it differently.
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Great topic to be interested in! We have an approach that might be of interest, integrating cultural values with specific jobs and processes so that expectations for how to apply the cultural values are spelled out. A recent journal articles describes that approach.
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