All organizations, regardless of size, industry, location, or age, have a culture. Culture defines an organization’s identity. It distinguishes how we make decisions, the ways we interact, and our level of engagement. And it is reflected in how employees describe the work environment, the degree to which they comprehend and feel emotionally invested in the business, and our ability to attract and retain staff. Yet, some feel they need to be a king with superhero powers to impact their culture. (Did you really think I’d miss a chance to talk about Black Panther?)
[Culture] can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with culturally unremarkable competitors.—James L. Heskett
As I’m sure you are aware, Black Panther is the superhero moniker for T’Challa, the leader of the African nation of Wakanda. Unlike its neighbors, Wakanda sits atop a rare mineral called vibranium that has provided the nation with technological advances far beyond the rest of the world. It also led to T’Challa’s ancestors concealing the country from outsiders. Without external interference or influence, Wakandans have developed a distinctive culture that, while unique, can also serve to help us better understand the cultures of our organizations.
To comprehend culture, we must be able to distinguish the dimensions that characterize it. One framework that has received research-supported attention is the Organizational Culture Profile (OCP). This model breaks down culture into seven distinct values. Each is a tangible notion, and each can be addressed via objectives, initiatives, and leadership.
Innovative. Innovative cultures are flexible and adaptable. They experiment with new ideas, are predisposed to risk taking, and accept failure as a necessary step in the learning process. Like Wakanda’s tribal monarchy, these companies are typically a flat hierarchy where titles and other status distinctions are softened. Need a little more Wakandan innovation? What about Shuri, T’Challa’s sister? She designs the new technology for the country and has been described as being even smarter than Tony Stark.
Aggressive. Organizations with aggressive cultures value competitiveness. They are laser-focused on owning their market and consistency try to devise products and strategies to outperform competitors. In Wakanda, it is easy to outperform with their advanced technology, but the warrior instinct permeates throughout their culture. In addition to the Dora Milaje, the highly trained all-female special forces of Wakanda, the nation has a history of spies, scouts, and diplomats who infiltrate other governments to ensure the safety and supremacy of Wakanda.
Outcome-Oriented. The OCP framework defines outcome-oriented cultures as those stressing achievement, results, and execution. Staff are accountable for success and rewards are directly tied to the fulfillment of clearly-outlined objectives and established performance indicators.
Stable. A stable culture is predictable and rule-oriented. Not to be confused with obstructionist bureaucracy, this environment develops a consistency of expectations. As a result, individual are aligned around shared practices with greater efficiency, constant levels of output, and significantly less instances of miscommunication. Stability may be a benefit of a ten thousand year old monarchy (T’Challa is the descendant of Bashenga, the first in the royal line), but we don’t need a king to provide stability, just a reliability of systems, priorities, and values.
People-Oriented. A people-oriented culture values fairness, supportiveness, and equity. There is an emphasis on and expectation to treat others with respect and dignity, which has been found to result in, on average, 14 months higher employee retention. These companies also create an atmosphere where the workplace is fun, there’s inherent honesty and transparency, and there is a true investment in the well-being of the team.
Team-Oriented. A team-oriented culture emphasizes collaboration and cooperation. They communicate freely and are willing to share the good and bad. In addition, all employees are cross-trained so they are capable of helping each other and providing heightened customer service.
Detail-Oriented. With an intolerance for mediocrity, detail-oriented cultures focus on precision. Everyone is accountable to pull their weight with excellence being a prime motivator.
After mastering these seven dimensions of culture, one might conclude that the organization has a single, shared culture. While there are universal tenets that are pervasive, you are oversimplifying the idea of culture if you think or expect every department, branch, and cubicle corner to be identical. And this is not necessary a bad thing…unless the subculture becomes a counterculture.
Subcultures are an outgrowth of the organizational culture. They support the general vision and add a twist to make it feel more personal to conditions under which work is performed. Countercultures, on the other hand, are in direct opposition to the values of the broader culture. It can take the form of a potential insurgence or simply be a collection of your actively disengaged staff. Either way, the counterculture is a threat that cannot be ignored.
I mentioned earlier that Wakanda is ruled by a tribal monarchy—while T’Challa may be sovereign, he’s ruling over a divided kingdom that is separated amongst various tribes. Some, like the Border Tribe and River Tribe, have distinct cultures that align with the masses. These subcultures may not always agree with T’Challa, but they make efforts to work together. Others, like the Mountain Tribe, protest T’Challa being the new king and are willing to team up with some less-than-desirable individuals to fight for their cause.
As T’Challa will find as the new leader, there are instances where communication and compromise will maintain alliances. There are other times where the culture is under attack and force is needed. The key is to be level-headed enough to not grow prematurely impatient with diplomacy, while also be experienced enough to know when peacekeeping has run its course.
Culture is a sacred commodity. Anyone can replicate your product; they cannot, however, replicate the personality of your work environment. This is your competitive advantage. This is how you will design a product that’s even better than what you have today. This is how you will retain the brainpower to push the organization into the future. This is how you will defend your nation from rebellious tribes, aliens, and invaders just as your royal lineage has done for ages.
Don’t take your culture for granted and don’t assume it will improve by itself. If you can master the culture, everything else is gravy.