You Need Culture


David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”
Louis V. Gerstner Jr.(2005). Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise Through Dramatic Change (eBook). New York, NY: HarperCollins eBooks. p126.

A lot of discussion happens when the question of Culture comes up. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, we all claim to live within a ‘culture’ and that must mean that we, therefore, understand what culture is and how it works. This is similar to the notion that most people have visited a hospital, either to see a loved one or due to personal illness or injury and thus we all know how hospitals work, don’t we? The same is true of schools. Most people have spent time at school. This must mean we are experts about school and school culture? The same is true of organizations, private or public. 

Often when the term culture is used, our minds start to think of an ‘Indiana Jones’ type character or an anthropologist making their way through a rainforest or crossing a barren desert, in some remote part of the world, in order to study a tribe of people and their culture. As romantic as this might sound, the reality is that almost everyone belongs to a tribe of some kind. Whether that tribe is your family, your circle of friends, your work colleagues, professional associations, college or university alumni or simply the organization you work for, we all belong to a tribe and often more than one tribe and do so for personal and possibly professional gain.

In other words, the Government agency you work for, the organization that pays you, is in itself a tribe and thus is permeated with its own culture. A deeper analysis would actually reveal that the culture of your organization, is in fact layered with a variety of sub-cultures that may positively or negatively impact the broader culture of the organization. This could range from the senior leadership team or the C-Suite, the governing Board (if there is one), to the cultures within each specific area or directorate. In other words, the notion of an organizational culture should not be viewed as something static or moving at a glacial pace but rather as something that is organic. For a culture to exist, there must be people contributing to the culture of that organization. The other reality check is that there are people who are experts in the study of cultures. The most obvious would be a Social / Cultural Anthropologist or a Sociologist or Social Psychologist.


Organizations are organic and that means that they are dynamic.


An excellent definition of Culture can be found in the writings of Anthropologist, Dr. David Givens.

“Culture represents the entire database of knowledge, values, and traditional ways of viewing the world, which have been transmitted from one generation ahead to the next—nongenetically, apart from DNA—through words, concepts, and symbols.”  Dr. David Givens ‘What is Anthropology?’ 

How does this help in a job application or for that matter, someone leading an organization: government, private sector, not-for-profit, and the like? Simply, if you are going to apply for a position with an organization, you must first understand something about the organization and that ultimately means gaining at the very least, a limited understanding, as an outsider looking in (an etic approach), of the organization you are seeking to work for. Conversely, once you have been appointed to the position, trying to understand the organization in order to ascertain what it is you need to do in the here and now, is important. In other words, taking an emic or an insider’s view of the organization, ascertaining a more detailed view of the organization and its culture. Be cautious here of people who tell you to ‘just do an ethnographic study on your team before you do anything!’ The use of Ethnography is a key tool of Anthropologists. They observe, note-take, observe, note-take and observe again. They record their observations carefully in their field notes, for writing-up later. They will codify their data and triangulate it with other data, preferably data that is easily available. Finally, they will interview, usually using a fairly structured set of questions. Then they will write up their findings using the ethnographic style of writing.

In short, the Anthropologist has specialized training and studied extensively, in order to master this style of research, mindful that the research is specific only to that context. The traditional ethnography would often take a year or more to complete. What you should do though, is take time out to observe your team and their interactions and draw your own conclusions. Whilst you may want to take a year to do this, the reality is that you were hired for a reason and the organization is not likely to stand still so that you can sit and observe and take some notes. Organizations are organic and that means that they are dynamic.

That said, David Givens in his definition, hints at what you should be attentive to. You want to understand:

  • What is the knowledge base that the organization and your team draw upon?
  • What are the values of the organization? 
  • Is what we say our values are, at odds with what we value?
  • What are the traditions of this organization or team?
  • How does our knowledge, values and traditions color the organization’s world view?
  • What are they key words, concepts and symbols used in the organization?
  • Do the key words, concepts and symbols align with the stated values of the organization?
  • What are rituals that strengthen and inform the culture of this organization?

These questions are generic enough to be of use in almost any organization and given that a lot of useful information can be found on the organization’s website or via search of the internet, you can start to gather this information from the moment you are putting a job application together, through to when you are putting your new team together. Critically, the ability to change the culture of an organization is very important for mission success. The State Services Authority in the State of Victoria (Australia), now called the Victorian Public Service Commission, in their 2013 publication ‘Organisational Culture’ noted why the culture of an organization is critical to the mission success of the organization.

“Culture matters because it impacts on most other organisational dynamics; it influences how organisations and their staff manage complexity, ambiguity and change. When organisational cultures are dysfunctional, staff become disengaged, and serious underperformance becomes a risk.”  State Services Authority (Victoria). (2013). Organisational Culture. Melbourne: State of Victoria. P9

As the organizational culture is shaped by the individuals, personally and collectively within the organization, whether it be a government or non-government organization, some key principles remain common to all. In any culture, especially in organizational culture, ‘Group-Think’, the capacity for members of a group, to see, think and act as if they are all sharing from the one brain, is a very real and present danger to the health of the organization. Group-Think has the capacity to introduce toxicity to an organization, the net effect of which would be to place the culture of the organization in opposition to the mission and the values of the organization and in turn, the strategic direction of the organization. From an anthropological perspective this could give rise to ‘anomy’, a complete breakdown of the values and social norms that had characterized the organization. One of the functions of culture in general, is that of ‘meaning-making’. If the people within a toxic organizational culture cannot make meaning of the organization via its culture, they will become disengaged and organizational drift will occur, irrespective of the type of organization in play. Leadership is therefore key to the shaping of a positive organizational culture and the role that leadership must play in this regard cannot be overstated. 

Consider this case study of a retail store manager. This manager is well known for turning around under-performing stores, often reaching previously unattainable KPI’s within her first month or so in the job. What does she do that the previous management did not do? Simple! From day one this manager works on the culture within her store and especially within her leadership team. From day one, she would sit with her leadership team and share her vision for the store, which always includes customer service as their core business. The leadership team, especially those that have had some experience of the clientele of this store, have the opportunity to co-construct the team’s vision for the store as they move forward. In short, the way this manager treats her staff is how her staff in turn treat the customers. What happens as a result? Two things occur: 

1) Customers come back, even in the retail sector that is dependent on discretionary spending. 

2) People seek to work in her store. 

Whilst her staff might number 10-15 people, this is similar in size to a small primary school. The point should be very evident. Whether you are running a school with a staff of 15 teachers or a retail store of 15 staff or a government health clinic with similar staffing numbers, this process works. Not only does it work at this number, it also works with a staff of 50, 500, 5000 or more. As the numbers increase, you simply need to scale-up your process. The fundamentals however do not change, at least not dramatically. On the issue of ‘scaling-up’ processes and responsibilities, Julia Austin (2019) writing  in ‘Working Knowledge’, a publication of Harvard Business School, makes a very important point and one which goes to the heart of the organization’s culture.

“As a company approaches 100 employees, founding leaders confront an important reality: It’s time to let go. It’s simply impossible to be plugged into everything. At this stage, you are probably managing managers, and more than ever have to empower your leaders to, well, lead! They will not always do things the way you do them, but at this stage, if you don’t have the confidence and the right people to do things without you, it will be a rough ride. In fact, when founding CEOs don’t learn to step up into their roles and empower their leaders, investors and board members begin to lose confidence in the founding CEO’s ability to operate at scale and consider whether to replace them….The best practice for team size is eight (recently termed the “two-pizza team rule” by Jeff Bezos). If you’re reaching a point where you or anyone have more than eight direct reports, it’s time to scale out a management team.”

Julia Austin (2019) ‘How Scale Changes a Manager’s Responsibilities’ in Working Knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School. 

A culture in which the leader leads leaders, is most likely an educative culture as well. The word education, from which we get the word educative, is from the Latin word, Educaré, which means to draw or lead out of. In the process of building a strong culture, closely aligned to the mission and values of the organization, it also needs to be educative in the true sense of the word. The fact that people want to work in your organization would suggest that they feel they can grow personally and professionally in that environment and that psychologically they feel safe in that environment as well. Leadership is therefore critical!

Is organizational culture important to mission success, is it part of the game plan?

“In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value. Vision, strategy, marketing, financial management—any management system, in fact—can set you on the right path and can carry you for a while. But no enterprise—whether in business, government, education, health care, or any area of human endeavor—will succeed over the long haul if those elements aren’t part of its DNA.”

Louis V. Gerstner Jr.(2005). Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise Through Dramatic Change (eBook). New York, NY: HarperCollins eBooks. p126.

David Ivers is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Great Britain and Ireland) and a Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders (Australia and New Zealand). 

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