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Let’s demystify corporate culture. It’s not an elusive or indefinable force within your organization. As David Friedman, author of Fundamentally Different and expert in organizational culture, reminds us, “Any group of people that gets together has an organizational culture.”

Think about participating in a weekend soccer league. You may not have formal captains, but do leaders emerge? Is your team a win-at-all-cost-elbow-throwing group? Or are you more interested in having fun? Are you fitness enthusiasts, or do you squeeze your week’s workouts into a Sunday afternoon? How can you tell what your team’s culture is? Simply, by how you and your teammates behave. Whether there are 50 people in an organization or 5000, the principle is the same: the culture of a company is expressed through its people’s behavior.

Assessing Organizational Culture

In “13 Things You Should Know About Company Culture/Organizational Culture,” David Peck, executive coach and author of The Recovering Leader, writes: “Creating/changing these [cultural] norms is a leadership function, one which often happens more haphazardly than intentionally. Yet ask someone in the organization about culture, and they’ll describe it to a tee.”

Or, just observe them. One of the “13 Things You Should Know” about your organizational culture and be able to assess, for instance, is candor vs. indirectness. Use meetings as a litmus test. Do people get into the room, completely participate and interact with intense and engaged dialogues?

Or, do people sit in meetings devoid of dynamic conversations? Do they nod and shake their heads, mostly silent? And do they then “have the meeting” outside the room around the water cooler and/or rest room? Do they complain, express frustration, gossip or bad-mouth? Do they try to play one side against another? Do they say that which they wished they could have said in the room?

I’m not saying that one organization is right and the other wrong, or that one is good and the other bad. But based on the behavior of the people within the company, you can certainly tell what the culture is like. They have described it to a tee through their actions and words.

What Kind Of Behavior Matters?

For each of the 13 areas Peck suggests leaders assess, one can ask, “What is the behavior?” Decision-making, for instance… How are significant decisions made in the company? Is it collaborative, or does the boss handle it?

Work ethic is another:… Do people show up at 6:00 am or 9:30 am? Do they leave at 4:30 or 7:00? Do they do this because they’re so engaged and happy, or because the organization has no regard for work/life balance?

Look at each cultural indicators and ask, “What is the behavior?” Your answers tell you what your culture is. If you like it, good. If you don’t, you now know what behavioral changes you want to achieve.

Peer Groups and Culture

Based on my 15+ years of experience as a Vistage Chair, I can say that once people are dedicated to their own development and have joined a peer group, they become very clear about their company cultures. Whether they’re good, bad, or ugly, at least the leaders know.

Many – I’m not going to say “most” or “all” – new Vistage members arrive at their first meeting without any understanding of culture, whether generally or specifically as it pertains to their own company. Only when they begin to hear, to talk, to learn, to observe other leaders and what they’re doing in their own companies, do they realize what they may need to change within their own cultures, i.e. what they need to stop doing or keep doing.

A Need-To-Know For Leaders

One definite result of peer group membership is a better awareness of culture – and, if the leader takes action, can lead to an improved work environment. There’s an old adage that people don’t know what they don’t know, and that includes culture. Yet, they’d better get clued in because, as Peck puts it, you can be “victimized by it, and it can be your downfall.”

Identifying culture comes down to asking, “How do we behave?” When leaders observe the behaviors inside their organizations, they can begin to change those that are destructive or counterproductive and “ritualize” those which help the organization thrive.