Organizational Culture: Definition, Importance, and Characteristics

An organization’s culture provides context and acts as a guide for what their people value, how they operate on a daily basis, how they relate to one another, and how they can be expected to perform.

Organizational culture is in part the values employees share, as well as the organization’s values, mission, history, and so on. In other words, organizational culture can be thought of as the company’s personality.

You’ll need to be familiar with an organization’s culture so that you can minimize conflict and complete the project with as much support and harmony as possible.

Pay attention to what leaders in the organization value when conducting business. Does the management team care about speed over perfection? How do people within the organization make decisions? Do they thoroughly examine every option for every decision? This will help inform which values are the most important to them and how you can approach your decision-making.

If you’re ever stuck in your project and need guidance about making a certain decision, or are unsure how to communicate with someone in the organization, reviewing the mission and values may help direct you toward the right way to handle that situation.

As a project manager, when you understand the different types of values, and what to prioritize, you’ll have an idea of how you can better prepare for conversations within the organization.

If you are interviewing for a project management position, asking about the culture is a great way to get more information about the company. It also shows the interviewer that you’re knowledgeable about the impact culture can have on a project.

An organization’s mission and values provide clues to its culture. Culture guides what an organization’s people value, how they operate, how they relate to one another, and how they can be expected to perform.

Gain a better sense of an organization’s culture

  • How do people prefer to communicate? Is it primarily through scheduled meetings, via email, over the phone?
  • How are decisions made, majority vote or top-down approvals?
  • What kinds of rituals are in place when someone new comes to the office? Are they taken out to lunch, given a tour of the building or introduced to the staff?
  • How are projects typically run? Do they prefer a Classic, do they prefer Matrix or some other style of project management?
  • What kinds of practices, behaviours, and values are reflected by the people in the organization? Is overtime or weekend work an expectation? Are there company-sanctioned social events?

Finding out what the company values, will tell you a lot about the culture. And how to handle communication, manage expectations, and identify potential conflicts as you work through your project.

Ways to navigate company culture

They will help you get the most out of your team, and ensure that your project is supported:

1. Make sure to ask questions.

  • As you observe the culture, try asking your peers what they think is going well and what they would change. Your peers may have the same opinion as you, and if not you may learn something new you didn’t learn in the interview process. Either way, you’ll be in a better place to assess risk, adjust your current project, or be more prepared for projects in the future.

2. Make observations.

  • It’s important to understand how things work, and what people like and respect about the company’s culture.
  • When working in different geographies, it’s also important to be aware of established customs, like bowing, shaking hands, or wearing head coverings. This will help you gain understanding and form respectful relationships.

3. Understand your impact.

  • Be aware of your role as a change agent. A change agent is someone who helps the organization transform by focusing on improving organizational effectiveness and development.

You and your project will most likely affect the organization in some way. Sometimes just the presence of a project manager creates changes in the office environment or employee dynamics. If your project requires major changes that the organization must adapt to, be mindful of how extreme those changes could be and seek feedback and approval early on.

  • The company may not agree with certain kinds of changes that don’t seem to fall in line with its mission, vision, or culture. It’s important to recognize the limits or boundaries of changes to implement and understand what would be the most beneficial for the project and the company overall.

The importance of organizational culture

1. Identity

An organization’s culture defines its identity. Its identity essentially describes the way the company conducts business, both internally and externally. A company’s values and organizational culture go hand-in-hand; its values are part of its identity. You can almost think of an organization’s culture as its personality. That is why it is important to learn your company’s (or target company’s) mission and value statements. The mission and value statements will help you understand why the company exists and will give you insight into what the company believes in and how it will behave.

2. People

A strong, positive organizational culture helps retain a company’s best employees. People who feel valued, engaged, and challenged are more likely to give their best and want to drive for success. An organization’s culture can help keep talented employees at a company, and it can attract great people too! On the other hand, a toxic culture can have the opposite effect. It is important to find an organization with a culture that fits your personality. One way to find out more about an organization’s culture is to talk to the people who work there. You can also take note of the current employees’ attire, expressions, and overall behaviour.

3. Processes

Organizational culture can have direct impacts on a company’s processes, and ultimately, its productivity. The organization’s culture is instilled throughout the company — from its employees to how its employees do their job. For example, a company that values feedback and employee involvement might have that reflected in their processes by including many opportunities for employees to comment. By allowing employees to feel their voices are heard, this company is adhering to its culture.

Some aspects of an organization’s culture that are directly related to how you will manage projects are communication, decision-making, rituals, previous management styles, and values.

Ask questions

You can learn about an organization’s culture by asking questions of management and peers. It can be helpful to ask these questions in the interview phase to better understand the company’s culture before accepting a position:

1. Atmosphere

  • What is the company’s dress code?
  • How do people typically share credit at this company?
  • Is risk-taking encouraged, and what happens when people fail?
  • How do managers support and motivate their team?
  • How do people in this role interact with customers and users?
  • When and how do team members give feedback to one another?
  • What are some workplace traditions?
  • What are some of the ways the company celebrates success?

2. Policies

  • What are the policies around sick days and vacation?
  • Does the company allow for employee flexibility (e.g., working from home, flexible working hours)?
  • What policies are in place that supports employees sharing their identity in the workplace?

3. Processes

  • What is the company’s onboarding process?
  • How do employees measure the impact of their work?

4. Values

  • What are the company’s mission and value statements?
  • How might the person in this role contribute to the organization’s mission?
  • How does the organization support professional development and career growth?

Listen to people’s stories

Listening to what current employees have to say and how they portray the company will give you great insight.

  • What were employees’ experiences with similar projects in the past?
  • What can they tell you about key stakeholders and customers?

Take note of company rituals

Rituals can be powerful drivers of culture. They engage people and help instil a sense of shared purpose and experience.

  • How are birthdays and holidays celebrated?
  • Do employees generally eat lunch at the same time and in the same place?
  • Watch employee interactions: Observing how employees interact can help you tailor your interaction style to the company norm.
  • Are employee interactions more formal or informal in nature?
  • Are ideas solicited from employees in different roles?

Understand your impact

As a project manager, you become a change agent. Remember: a change agent is a person from inside an organization who helps the organization transform by focusing on improving organizational effectiveness and development. When you begin a new role, sit down with management to better understand what is expected of you and how you can make the most of the opportunity.

Sharpen your communication skills

Interpersonal communication skills are a major part of project management. How a company communicates is directly tied to its organizational culture. You will most likely have interactions with various departments and management levels while executing projects.

To communicate effectively, you will need to understand how to navigate the different channels in your company. Ask questions about communication practices when you start a new role such as:

  • Is it customary to sign emails from the team rather than from you individually?
  • Should presentations include team members or be solely presented by the project manager?

This can help you make sure you are adhering to expectations.

Approaching projects differently from how similar projects were managed in the past may be met with some resistance. Although some projects may call for you to break the status quo, when you show an appreciation of your organization’s culture, you may help your team members accept any improvements you are implementing.

Organizational culture is important because it has a direct impact on you as a project manager, and learning how to navigate organizational culture gives you a great advantage when you are executing projects. Being able to navigate departmental interactions, communicate effectively, and plan your project in line with the organization’s culture will help set you up for success in your project management career path.

Organizational culture refers to the values employees share and an organization’s values, mission, history, and more. In other words, organizational culture can be thought of as a company’s personality.

When a company’s culture is aligned with its corporate strategy and goals, the level at which it can perform is impressive. When researching a company for a possible new job, understanding the company’s culture can help you decide if it is a good fit for you and your priorities. Also, understanding a company’s culture as a project manager can help you make informed choices about when you want your actions and decisions to fit within the culture or when you might choose to intentionally push back against the culture to effect change or create improvements.

The culture of each organization you encounter will be different and can change over time. It is worth your time as a project manager to learn about your company’s culture because it directly relates to your projects’ success.

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Mohammad Rahighi

Mohammad Rahighi

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T-Shaped Designer. More than 8 years of extensive experience in UI/UX Design, Web Design and Search Engine Optimisation. (https://rahighi.ir/)