So what exactly is organizational culture? And what are values, for that matter? Sometimes they seem like ethereal concepts flickering in the air in front of you—one moment you feel like you’ve finally understood them—you have definitions on the tip of your tongue—and the next moment they vanish.
Definitions range from Airbnb’s Brian Chesney’s comment that culture is “simply a shared way of doing something with passion” to a more common one of “how we do things around here.” Regardless of the specific definition, most people agree that culture and values can be crucial assets for any organization. Taking liberties with a famous Rolling Stones lyric gives us an insight into the whole culture riddle: “You can’t always get what you want, but you can probably get what you deserve.”
Picture a Venn diagram with two side-by-side circles. The circle on the left represents “values” of an organization; the circle on the right represents “culture” of the same organization. If values are the ideals that an organization desires or aspires to, culture is the manifestation or reality of the behaviors employees exhibit within that organization. In other words, regardless of what might be desired—or stated on a wall or in a manual—culture is what happens on the ground. In a sense, culture is the lump sum of all the observable ways employees exhibit (or do not) an organization’s values.
In a perfect world, the two circles would overlap closely in the Venn diagram. The values would be the culture. The culture would be the values. But that’s not always the case. In fact, it may rarely be the case, except in situations where the leaders are deliberate about shaping and growing the culture they want.
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Creative leaders try to grow the culture they want so that it matches the values they desire. It is important to note, though, that we are talking about leaders who “grow the cultures they want,” which may not always be considered “great” or “supportive” or whatever good sounding words we use to describe cultures that some of us may wish to work in. Deliberately knowing and instilling the culture they want is what strong creative leaders do. Apple’s culture under Steve Jobs was what he wanted, but may not be the culture that many high performers would want to work in. Ditto for Amazon. Jeff Bezos seems deliberate in growing a culture he wants for the firm, but again, may not be one everyone would thrive in.
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The above excerpt comes from my new book, “LIVEculture: How creative leaders grow the cultures they want,” coming out in April, with The Gang, leaders of high performing, highly creative organizations, profit making and not-for-profits, ranging from business to sports, the arts to law enforcement, education to health care information.