The Hidden Culture of Organizations: What Lies Beneath the Surface

Aug 30, 2023

The Hidden Culture of Organizations: What Lies Beneath the Surface

Every organization, irrespective of its size or domain, boasts a hidden culture. This culture is often unspoken but deeply embedded in its DNA. It influences decisions, behaviors, and ultimately the organization's direction. Today, I'd like to share an actual case that sheds light on the profound importance of understanding an organization's true values.

Jane, a talented engineer, prided herself on being an innovator. She constantly sought new projects, introduced fresh technologies, and most importantly, collaborated seamlessly with teams across the organization. Her approach not only led to an excellent product but also fostered a spirit of teamwork and mutual respect among her colleagues.

However, at the end of the year, Jane was shocked. Her annual assessment yielded only a mediocre grade. Puzzled and hurt, she approached her manager for clarity. It was then that she uncovered a startling revelation: while she had been focusing on innovation, cross-functional teamwork, and product quality, her organization valued something different — speed. Her peers, who worked in silos and delivered projects rapidly (albeit with multiple design changes), were graded higher.

This experience taught Jane a valuable lesson. As I mentioned to her, the incident painted a clear picture of the company's real values. While they talked about innovation and teamwork, their assessment method revealed their true priority: speed over quality or collaboration.

The question then becomes, how can we decipher an organization's hidden culture? A few points to keep in mind:

  1. Look Beyond the Words: An organization's core values aren't always echoed in its mission statement. Actions, more often than not, speak louder. Observe reward systems, promotions, and recognitions to understand what truly matters.
  2. Assessment and Rewards: Like in Jane’s case, how appraisals are done and what behaviors are rewarded can reveal a lot about an organization's hidden culture. This is why calibration is so important in performance management processes. Calibration is more than just ensuring consistency in evaluations; it's a management discussion that collectively determines the qualities and attributes that define excellence within an organization. These discussions are vital because the individuals identified as 'excellent' aren't just top performers; they are emblematic representations of the organization's values and priorities. By spotlighting these individuals, the organization declares what it holds in the highest regard. Getting this right is not just about fairness, but also about maintaining alignment with the organization's authentic culture.
    Such a calibrated approach not only ensures that the right behaviors and values are rewarded but also communicates clearly to the workforce about what is genuinely valued.
  3. Leadership Behavior: The actions and priorities of an organization's leaders, especially in challenging situations, can be very revealing. Their reactions often provide insights into the organization's actual priorities and values.
  4. Employee Stories: Listening to experiences, especially those that seem contradictory or surprising, can offer significant insights into the company’s deep-seated values.
  5. Feedback and Response Mechanisms: How an organization collects feedback, and more importantly, how it reacts to it, says a lot about its underlying culture.
  6. Hiring and Onboarding Processes: The kind of talent an organization attracts, retains, and lets go of can tell tales about its cultural priorities.

To conclude, understanding an organization's true culture is imperative. It helps align individual goals with organizational objectives and can also signal if personal values are compatible with the company's. For Jane, the lesson was hard but valuable. It made her reflect on what she valued in her professional journey. If the culture of her current organization didn’t align with her beliefs, perhaps it was time to find one that did. After all, for long-term success and job satisfaction, it's vital to find an environment where one's hard work and values are genuinely appreciated.

Feel free to reach out to me directly with any questions about performance management, calibration, or cultural issues at [email protected].