What is organisational culture?

I remember in the “introduction to culture studies” course I took at university, we covered tens of different definitions of culture. There is a whole book in fact that contains nothing more than definitions of culture, eight different types of them! What our professor said stayed with me until I tried applying my understanding of culture to recruiting: the only way to know if you’ve chosen the right right one is to see if it serves your purpose. Over time I decided on the best one to serve my purpose – but if you happen to use a different one for the purposes of recruiting, please share in the comments below, I’m always curious to see what others have chosen :)


“Culture is the way in which we solve problems and reconcile dilemmas”

Fons Trompenaars


Organisational culture is nothing else than the way in which we choose to solve problems. This definition is quite broad, but I like that you can apply it to both national and organisational culture. I find that to be especially important in the multicultural workplaces we find ourselves in nowadays.


So what does this mean exactly? Well, let’s take dress code as an example. Humans can only survive in moderate temperatures but they live in areas where temperatures are lower than that. The solution to that problem? Clothing. You’ll find that people in different cultures resolved this issue in different ways. This is why people dress differently in different geographical areas, even if the weather is comparable. This isn’t a constant: the ways of different nations change over time, which is why you wouldn’t necessarily dress differently in Poland and in the UK now. Or at the very least the differences become less visible. We’ve become part of the western culture (even if our government is fighting against that, but that’s a story for another day).


Similarly, you have to solve that problem as a member of an organisational culture. In some, you will have to follow very strict dress code guidelines, in others you’re allowed more flexibility. In some, you’ll be expected to wear a suit, in others jeans. How you solve the problem (humans need clothes) is not necessarily only rooted in the rational, otherwise we’d be allowed to go to the office (half) naked on a particularly hot day. It’s also not the only way to approach the issue, as different companies in the same exact geographical location and industry may choose to have different dress codes. However, the way the issue is solved may feel completely obvious to us, especially if we’ve only ever been exposed to one culture. To truly understand to what extent of our lives (also professional lives) are influenced by culture, you might have to immerse yourself in a culture different to your own.


It’s important to differentiate between the solution itself and the manifestation of that solution. Culture is intangible but it manifests through tangible objects. A suit, a pair of jeans – that doesn’t yet constitute culture. You have to dig a little deeper to understand why members of a certain culture will choose to manifest it through suits. Is it a custom that regulates the dress code, or is it dictated by practical aspects? Maybe there is some external regulation that the company has to follow? Different societies may regulate this in different ways and national culture may have a big influence on the organisational culture as well.


Once you understand that at least 90% of what you talk about when describing the organisational culture of your company is in fact nothing more than its physical manifestation, you are really making progress. It’s always more difficult to describe the abstract: how can you describe a feeling? Or an abstract idea like peace? Or war? It’s difficult but it’s not impossible. You just have to avoid simplifying such terms to what their physical manifestation is: a gun itself isn’t war, but it can be a manifestation of what war means. Similarly, a ping pong table says nothing about your culture. But if you dig deeper and understand why it made it to your office, you’ll be more likely to understand what your culture is.


Unfortunately, describing the true meaning behind a ping pong table is much more complicated than mentioning it’s there. The reason for that is simple: natural language is one of the manifestations of culture. As such, it cannot be used to describe it. In other words, you can’t say a culture is “great” because what “great” means will be defined by the culture you are describing, which may differ from what “great” means in the culture your candidate is in. When you say “we have a very informal culture”, the meaning the candidate attaches to informal may be very different from what you actually meant to communicate – because, again, what formal means is defined culturally.


If this doesn’t seem to make much sense, think of how we talk about language as a phenomenon. It was impossible to compare languages using language, right? It’s like saying “the colour red is red” – you can’t describe a colour using a colour, you will have to look for something outside of it. So, we created metalanguage to describe and compare languages. For example, we can describe a language by referring to the parts of speech that exist in the language: nouns, verbs, adjectives… this allows us to compare them as well. There are languages where you will use one part of speech more often, for example, or even languages where certain part of speech doesn’t exist at all. Or maybe they will just behave differently – in Polish for example you can decline nouns, which is impossible in English. This in turn allows the syntax in the Polish language to be more flexible, you can arrange the words in different order and the meaning of the sentence won’t change as you can tell which noun has what function based on the declination and not just its position in a sentence.


You can say a language is easy or difficult, just like you can say that a culture is great or bad. No one will stop you, but you have to understand that what you said means absolutely nothing outside of a strictly defined context, which may not be obvious to your candidates. This is why in my next blog, we’ll look at how a culture can be described. Spoiler alert, I will also encourage you to use a theory created by Fons Trompenaars. I’m a big fan, if you haven’t noticed yet :)


Feel free to comment if anything requires further clarification, if you have doubts or simply disagree. Until next time!

Social Recruiting geek turned trainer @ Lightness, networking enthusiast & blogger. Love travel, sci-fi & all things employer branding! I travel between London and Poland a lot and so some of my social posts will be in Polish :)

2 thoughts on “What is organisational culture?”

  1. Alicia Parr - December 9, 2016 4:59 pm

    Nice piece. I’ve heard it said that values are the DNA of culture. Values being a tendency to prefer, appreciate, and prize a sort of outcome. We– humans, families, tribes, organizations– we prioritize values in some particular way that we may not always be able to describe. How it looks to me is that these values are ordered and traded off between through confrontation with dilemma.

    I’ve also said (myself!) that culture is an emergent property. It’s the property that exists– the recipe, if you will, of a particular values prioritization. But we can’t measure it directly. We can only measure it’s artifacts.

    My current thinking. Which will probably evolve. :)

    1. Kasia - December 10, 2016 11:49 am

      Thanks for your comment Alicia. I like the metaphor you used – I’m just usually cautious about using values to describe culture but how you prioritise them seems to give you more of an idea of what culture you’re in. My thinking on the subject keeps evolving too, we’ll see where I’ll end up with this series I guess ;)


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