Learning to understand and assess organizational culture

Organizational culture gets a lot of media attention—especially when it’s not-so-great. Last year, the New York Times portrayed the culture at retail giant Amazon in pretty brutal terms. It painted a picture of a corporate culture that eroded work-life boundaries, where employees cried at their desks, and those who couldn’t cut it as Amazonians were culled in what one former HR manager called, “purposeful Darwinism.” Following the article, Amazon cried foul, with founder Jeff Bezos hitting back and saying he didn’t recognize the culture portrayed in the Times article.

Social media colossus, Facebook, came in for its own bruising when reports surfaced of a “cult-like” culture where employee dissent was discouraged and leadership enforced a top-down approach when it came to decision-making. Recently, the culture at Google came under similar unfavorable scrutiny when thousands of employees staged brief walk-outs at offices worldwide to protest sexism, racism, and uncurbed executive power. (Ironically, if you do a search on Google of “toxic corporate culture,” you’ll get over 27 million results.)

How many of us think about organizational culture, good or bad? Wherever we work, it’s there, in the background somewhere. On a day-to-day basis, we are usually so immersed in it that we don’t always pay close attention. It’s a little like breathing—you know it’s necessary, you know it’s occurring, but if all is well, you don’t actively take note of it. But, if you suddenly develop trouble breathing, you’ll notice—and things can go downhill rapidly.

“You can hardly pick up a newspaper or listen to a program without hearing somebody talking about the culture of this workplace or the culture of that organization,” says Dr. Greg Urban, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches and writes about organizational culture. “But very few people actually have the depth of understanding of what goes into making up culture, the embodied practices that we have of talking about the world, and all the things that pass beneath the radar screen.”

With the launch of the new Certificate in Organizational Anthropology, Penn LPS Online aims to remedy that lack of understanding and put organizational culture firmly on the radar. The certificate is comprised of four classes that give students the tools and understanding they need to create, understand, and thrive in any organizational culture. These classes can help anyone to integrate culture proficiency into an existing skill set or to develop new skills necessary to advance and thrive in leadership and management positions. Students complete the classes with a deeper understanding of culture and the practical strategies necessary to build and lead teams, foster diverse and inclusive environments, and make decisions driven by a nuanced understanding of the different perspectives at play in the modern workplace.

“The goal of these classes is to give students a real sense for what culture is and how it applies to our daily lives,” says Urban. “And just as importantly, we want them to develop the ability to discern it in ways that they have not been able to before.”

When it comes to organizational culture, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, a certain level of invisibility, unless there is a determined effort by an organization to codify, reinforce, and continuously create a culture of shared values, beliefs, and commitments. Most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing or creating an organization’s culture from the ground up. And sometimes, company culture may not be the result of a conscious plan—it grows on its own. You could say, it’s part of human nature.

“One of the really interesting—but also difficult—aspects about culture is that it forms whether you like it or not, or whether you're explicit about it or not,” says Dr. Derek Newberry, adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania who also teaches about culture at the Wharton School. “Even within an organization, when a new project team comes together, they immediately start creating their own culture. They create a tacit understanding of how they're going to work together and what their norms are. Things like who takes the lead, how you communicate with each other, the kinds of hours you work, or what your rhythm and pace are.”

Urban and Newberry, Faculty Co-Directors of the Certificate in Organizational Anthropology for Penn LPS Online, agree that wherever people gather to work (or even play) together, a culture is created, on its own or by design. Part of the culture encompasses the development of rituals and customs that bind a group together. Even small things can unite, make the culture more comfortable, or help a group perform better.

“One really interesting finding of some of the work on teams that Derek did at Wharton is that the teams that did the best were the ones that developed the strongest culture,” says Urban. “They might have a team poster on the wall or develop a handshake or use certain words that cued them into being a member of that group. All these factors helped create a team spirit. So things like symbols, rituals, stories, all form parts of culture in an organization and tend to spontaneously generate.”

The bottom line is that understanding organizational culture will have a great impact not only on your personal performance but on the success of the organization you work for or the teams you manage.

“If you don't understand your organization's culture, you're unlikely to be successful,” says Newberry bluntly. “That's not just true of leaders, but of anyone in the organization. If you don't understand how things are done, if you don’t get the unspoken assumptions, it's going to be hard to influence other people and it's going to be hard for you to advance. I saw a survey recently of thousands of leaders all over the world who had moved into a new role and most of them said that how well they understood their culture was the number one factor in their success.”

Cultural literacy—from an organizational perspective—becomes especially critical when you are managing in a global context, as many organizations today do.

“Anthropology really teaches us to begin to see the world in terms of cultural difference and to understand that with even a simple situation, there may be multiple points of view on what's actually happened in that situation,” says Urban. “One of the things we want to do with the students in the organizational anthropology classes is to help them develop a sense of cultural relativity. We want to give them the skills to be able to understand the world the way other people are understanding it.”

Of course, not all organizational cultures are created equal and while you may thrive in one type of culture, you may struggle to succeed in another. How do you assess if a culture is a good fit for you? How do you know if it is a culture that encourages—or hinders—collaboration, employee satisfaction, and overall performance?

In any organization, the challenge is not just to create a culture, but to communicate it effectively. While many aspects of organizational culture can’t be well understood until you’ve worked in a particular group for a while, as a prospective employee or newcomer you can think and act like an anthropologist encountering a group for the first time. You can observe, take careful note of the workplace environment, and ask relevant questions that can uncover additional insights. For instance,

  • Observe the hiring process. How did the HR person or hiring contact interact with you during the interview process? Was it relaxed or more formal? Were you introduced to others during your interview visit? Did it feel like a welcoming atmosphere? Did you feel comfortable with the people you met?
  • Take notice of the artifacts you see around the office and how employees maintain their workspaces. Are they elegant, sedate, cookie-cutter, or funky? Is any form of personal expression largely absent?
  • Check out the interaction taking place. If there is an open floor plan, does it encourage collaboration or is everyone wearing headphones to cut down on noise? Could you work comfortably there?
  • Is there a formalized process in the organization for giving and receiving feedback?
  • Are there meeting spaces for collaboration or quiet places for when significant concentration is required?
  • Are there common areas that encourage interaction or camaraderie?
  • Are shared corporate values posted publicly for anyone to see? Are they codified at all? How do they sync with your personal values?
  • Does the organization conduct employee satisfaction surveys?
  • Is there a large percentage of remote employees? How are they brought together to communicate as part of the team?

Thanks to the internet, it’s also possible to do some sleuthing on the side. “You can do a lot of figuring out beforehand if you know what you're looking for,” says Urban. “You can scope some things out and we talk about that in the various courses we are offering. For instance, online chat groups will reveal a huge amount about an organization, for instance, what people are complaining about or what people like about it and so forth. But you need to have an understanding of basic concepts to know what it is that you are even looking for.”

Developing the observation skills needed to understand and successfully work within a particular organizational culture are stressed in all of the organizational anthropology classes. Newberry says these skills are critical in any type of organization. “First, the ability to be a careful observer is really important. Much of understanding culture has to do with nuances and body language and the words we use. Then, being able to interpret the systematic relationships between the behaviors you observe and understand in practical terms what they mean, is key.”

As Newberry points out, pretty much any kind of social interaction in a workplace is dense with insider information—if you know how to interpret it. “If you just sit in on a team meeting and observe—who speaks first, how are decisions made, how is information shared, how is understanding created—you can learn so much about the culture of that team and what might work well and what doesn’t.”

And, says Newberry, learning from observation allows you to influence what the culture becomes in your workplace or organization, instead of passively getting stuck in an environment that, left to its own devices, may not develop effectively. “We're trying to give students the tools to shape better cultures, the kind of culture that they want. We want them to learn to be mindful and explicit with their colleagues as it's forming because again, culture is going to happen, one way or another. It’s inevitable.”

The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Organizational Anthropology is open for enrollment. You have the option to enroll in individual courses without committing to the entire Certificate in Organizational Anthropology, enjoying the flexibility and expertise offered by Penn LPS Online to suit your schedule and interests. (A separate degree concentration in organizational studies is also offered as part of the Penn LPS Online BAAS degree.) If you want more information, please visit our certificate program page.

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