As both a rugby fan and a Scotland supporter, it was with great excitement and enormous trepidation that I took my trip to Japan in September. Great excitement to be attending the rugby world cup and visiting what I’d heard was a truly amazing country – enormous trepidation which is unfortunately a staple for any loyal follower of the boys in blue. 

I hadn’t been to Japan before but I knew, from the things I’d read and the people I’d asked, that their culture was really different to both my own and that of where I currently live. Desperate not to make any horrible blunders and offend a nation of the most respectful and polite individuals, I invested a lot of time in making sure I learned how to greet and interact with people in a culturally acceptable manner. Thus, I successfully navigated my time in Japan (although Scotland’s performance didn’t quite fall into the bracket of successful!). 

Even though national culture and organisational culture are not identical concepts, they are both largely intangible constructs which shape both expectations and behaviours of the people living inside them. They can also determine, to an extent, how successfully you can navigate situations and interactions during your time in the culture. So why, when we are at the very least willing to google a country before we visit, do we put so little effort into trying to research and understand an organisational culture before we make huge, life altering, decisions such as where we want to spend eight hours a day, five days a week for the foreseeable future? 

Perhaps the first part of the answer to this is that organisational culture and its importance is not as widely understood as some HR professionals might like to believe. I remember going through an interview process a couple of years ago and when I got to the final interview with the CEO we had the following exchange: 

Me: So, could you tell me a little bit about the culture here? 

CEO: I don’t know what you mean 

Me: OK. I mean, what does it feel like to work here 

CEO: It feels like I come to work then I get paid and I go home. I don’t get it. 

So, perhaps inadvertently, he did answer my question but he certainly was not exactly on top of the culture question. 

Which leads onto the second part of the answer. Even people who understand theoretically what organisational culture is, don’t always realise its importance and that it is a leverageable construct. Your culture can be used to attract certain types of people to your business or even filter out others. It can be used as part employee proposition, marketing and retention strategies to name but a few. Ignoring organisational culture is like sitting on a gold mine without even buying a metal detector. 

And then we have the third, and perhaps most crucial, reason why we might ignore or tend to be passive about organisational culture. It is notoriously difficult to quantify, to measure. And when it’s difficult to quantify, it’s really hard to put into words. Maybe we don’t bother trying to find out about an organisations’ culture because we think any answer we get, is going to be complete guff? 

And who could blame you. Even us so called experts can’t agree on a single model of organisational culture that everyone agrees is the best. There’s Edgar Scheins so-called onion model which points out some important factors but is often criticized for being over simplistic. Widely used is also Handy’s model of four cultural ‘types’ however, as widely as it is used, it is also criticised. The idea of four fixed types of culture feels instinctually wrong to most people; much like using a zodiac sign as an accurate predictor of personality. Then there’s my personal favourite – Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web; simultaneously critisised for being both overly complex and for its six levers of culture not being enough to accurately describe an organisation. 

The good news is we feel like we are getting pretty darn close to a solution with the Leading Brains cultural assessments. Without blinding you with science (and giving away our secrets!) what we are able to do is take a tangible measure of the ‘personality’ of your organisation, what it feels like to be on the receiving end of it, what it values, what it rewards. We then also take into account the life stage of the organisation and what the trademarks of that are in terms of ways of working. Sprinkle on top of that a little organisational behaviour magic and you have, what we think is, the most accurate description of your cultural reality, a good baseline prediction of what’s likely to change and how as the organisation moves through the next life stage and what kind of people will thrive both now and then. Pretty cool. 

So, if you’re sick of trying to bluff your way through the culture question in interviews or feeling lost when it comes to leveraging culture or even changing it (that is a whole other wasps’ nest and a conversation for another day), get in touch. Having the words and measures to explain what it feels like to work in your organisation is the start of being able to mine that gold!