Conscientious culture

Peter Drucker said it first: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Many of us have seen these words come to life in the businesses and organizations we run, in community organizations we serve, in institutions we love.

The phrase has a cautionary note to it, essentially telling us to ignore organizational culture at our own peril. It’s pointing out the frailty of the strategies in which we invest so much time and resource; they can be dismantled in a heartbeat by something that is invisible, often forgotten, at times unintentional, and almost always underestimated.

The duality of culture

While I don’t disagree with the cautionary tone — culture is powerful and elusive, after all — I think we are missing the mark if we tiptoe fearfully around the notion of culture. For as much as culture can dismantle strategy — devour it even, according to Drucker — a strong, positive culture can also accelerate success more effectively than anything else.

As such, it seems fitting to place organizational culture front and center as we all contemplate our bold, ambitious plans this year. Whether you’re focused on a particular goal for your business or you’re striving for better outcomes at a nonprofit organization, a little attention to culture will pay dividends by bringing your strategies to life and energizing your people.

Truths for culture stewards

What exactly is organizational culture? One source defines it as a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. I like this definition because it points out the reason we should care: culture drives how people behave.

A report entitled “Shaping Culture Through Key Moments,” published by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, 2016, offers truths for culture stewards.

  • Culture doesn’t only come from the top. On the contrary, culture is constantly shaped middle-out and bottom-up by the actions of everyone in the organization. While leadership may articulate the desired culture — service-oriented or powered by continuous learning, for instance — the actions of everyone either reinforce or erode the culture.
  • Culture is not just present in the big decisions. Related to the first point, culture is expressed in every decision made, every action taken. When an organization sets its budget for the new year, it is making a strong statement about its culture. A clear mismatch between the organization’s stated values and its functional priorities (as evidenced by its spending plans) will erode the culture or express a different one altogether.
  • Culture evolves whether we pay attention to it or not. Because culture is the culmination of human behaviors, it happens wherever humans coexist. In western society, the default culture that will appear in the absence of effort to shape a different one is usually a top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control culture.

Culture requires constant attention and stewardship. As such, the tendency to ignore it is understandable. But organizations that get it right will see a happy, productive team that is accomplishing shared objectives. When stated that way, attention to culture seems well worth the effort.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of the GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Summit and adjacent counties in the areas of education, arts and arts education, health and social services, and civic and nonprofit enhancement.