How Organizational Culture Happens

Whether you want it to or not, your organization will have a culture. And no, beanbags and beers don't constitute a culture. Instead of thinking of culture as an emotional blanket of how workers feel when they come to work every day, think about it this way:

Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations.
— Michael Watkins

Culture forms the synapses of an organization. It orients employees and teaches them what matters and what doesn't. And it also teaches them how to act to get things done.

Often, though, we bring our own emotional baggage to words about culture. (What can I say, it's human nature.) "Entrepreneurial" is short for "cool," "bureaucratic" is short for "terrible place to work."

Some of that may be true. But flip these around and you might surprise yourself. Culture isn't about how you feel; it's about what you do and the patterns by which you do it. So entrepreneurial sometimes means, "flying by the seat of your pants and no one knows what they're doing." And bureaucratic sometimes means, "careful, because this is important." No one wants an airline or a hospital surgeon deciding to be entrepreneurial. I'm cool with being careful, safe, and slow when my safety is at risk.


The thing about culture is that it happens to an organization whether you plan on it or not. And it has to be organic. A CEO can set out a mission or principles, but she can't say, "Here's the culture!" It must be acted.

Mission statements often don't set the tone

Instead, we settle for platitudes. Even across industries, it's hard to tell which company it might be. Can you guess?

  • "We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind." (NASA)
  • "...dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth." (Southwest Airlines)
  • "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." (Google)
  • "to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society." (Harvard University)

These are all big, vague mission statements, but they say a lot about what a company cares about and why they're there. But if you took away those names, would you know what company you worked for?

Culture is so much more than that. Culture defines the day-to-day operation of how your company actually works together. Do you value new ideas? Where is the power in the organization? If choosing between three things to do, which one goes first? And how important is the customer vs. the bottom line?

This article from HBR covers this in more depth, from a variety of smart perspectives.

What about me?

In the end, for your career, culture matters. And a "fit" matters more than a role. Startups can be fun, but they can also be full of bro culture and craft beer. Sometimes big companies are slow and so hierarchical you want to tear your hair out. But if your organization can get behind something big and make it happen, that's cool too. It's all about what lights your fire.

I'll leave you with an oldie but goodie: