The beauty of business is that it connects all four corners of the earth.
Throughout our careers, we will come across several cultures, some of whom can feel miles apart from our own.
My favourite definition of ‘culture’ is, “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively“. It follows that culture is not confined to wider society and communities but is equally prevalent in organisations.
The comforting thing to acknowledge is that typically cultures share at least five mutual characteristics. So before you’ve even started to embrace a new culture for business or personal purposes you are already familiar with at least five of their practices.
So, whether you are trying to penetrate a new market, build global contacts or you simply want to understand your playing field a bit better. here are the five common cultural characteristics that you will find in every society and organisational culture.
1. The Initiation
Cultures all tend to have a ritual for becoming a new member. A newcomer starts out as a stranger and then embarks on a rite of initiation, created by a particular culture, which marks the passage of that individual into the community. Some of these rituals may be so informal as to be hardly noticed (e.g., the first time you are invited to a coworker lunch), while others may be highly formalised (e.g., the call to the bar ceremony for Barristers). In every business, there are groups, power struggles, and unspoken ways that members earn their way from the role of a “newbie” to that of a full member. All these challenges are to be expected in any culture.
2. Common History
Think for a moment about the history of a business like Coca Cola. Do you have an emotional response to the mental images of the red and white Coca Cola logo? Traditions form as the organization grows and expands. The history of every culture, of every corporation, influences its present state. Its history also influences where it might want to be in the future and further what is may struggle to compete with. You just have to reflect on the history of a business to understand it more.
3. Common Values and Principles
Cultures all hold values and principles that are communicated from older members to younger or newer ones. For example, time (fast customer service) and cleanliness are the two pillar values of the McDonald’s corporation. A new employee may take these for granted, while a seasoned professional who inspects restaurants and its franchises, may see the continued need to continually reinforce these core values. Without reinforcement, norms may dissolve, and if this were the case it could fundamentally change the success of a business which has been founded on its core values. This reinforcement of values is seen across every successful organisation. These businesses owe their success to certain values and they respect those values.
4. Shared Purpose
Why are we here? What is our mission? Throughout every culture, this fundamental question is asked. In business, the answer to this question can be found in the mission and vision statements of most organisations. Employees or members will be expected to acknowledge and share the company vision. The most successful organisations make sure each member is working towards the same goal in unity.
5. Common habits (Symbols, uniforms, language, and rituals)
Cultures have common symbols that mark them as a group; the knowledge of what a symbol stands for helps to reinforce who is part of the group and who is not. Cultural symbols can be seen in organisations in the form of logos however they can also include dress, such as the Western business suit and tie, the Scottish kilt, or the Islamic headscarf. Symbols also include slogans or sayings, such as “Just do it” or “because you’re worth it.” The slogan may serve a marketing purpose but may also embrace a mission or purpose within the culture.
Cultures have their own vocabulary and unique ways in which they communicate. Consider the lawyer or the accountant both have and use specialised jargon when communicating within their field. This language is learned over time and “on the job”. While a textbook can help, it can’t give you the first-hand experience of how it’s used within a particular culture. The use of this language is a defining feature of whether you are part of that culture or not.
Rituals are another core component of cultures. They can most simply be seen in company practices, for example, whether they have embraced the digital landscape or whether they exist largely on paper. Or, in how they recruit staff and so on. Rituals mean that organisations can have formalised processes which then stifle their future ability to innovate or adapt to new circumstances. This can be a real sticking point for organisations as the business world is far from stagnant and is in fact constantly shifting. However, once organisations get around any disadvantages of pre-existing rituals they can start to build practices allowing them to remain competitive.
The first step for any organisation, wishing to compete at the forefront of innovation, is to understand their deep seeded company culture. Without acknowledging it’s cultural advantages and restrictions companies cannot hope to grow.
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