The First Step Towards Working Better Together Right Now: Understanding Organizational Culture

Marc Vollebregt
9 min readOct 5, 2021

I said it before. Today’s way of organising work and running organisations is not working for us. We feel it, we know it, and most importantly, the numbers show it: Only 15% of employees are engaged because 67% are disengaged and a staggering 18% are actively disengaged. Moreover, 16% of employees have burnout symptoms, and while working remotely or in a hybrid way, we struggle with loneliness, boredom and stress. Read more about that in my earlier article.

Organizations don’t work for us because we invented how we work together more than a hundred years ago. Today, we don’t work behind an assembly line in a factory, but sit behind our desk — yet we continue to work according to the same principles that were invented over a century ago. The distance between how we work, and what we work on is too big, leading to friction. Read this article to know more.

So what can you do to bridge the gap? What can we do to make organizations work for us again? What is the solution?

Making people work better together starts by understanding why the organization and its people behave like they do. How we work together and how we think about working together is organizational culture, and it’s worth a proper look because our solution lies there. Understanding culture will help you to know why the organization and its people behave like they do, and most importantly, give you tools on how to make them work better together.

Culture it is then. But what is it? Take a moment for yourself, grab a nice cup of coffee, and have fun reading this.

What Is Culture?

“Lunch is free and every Thursday we drink beers.”

This is what a lot of people told me pre-COVID, when I asked them what their company’s culture was like.

Is that it? Free beers and lunch, is that what culture is? I think not. I think there’s much more to it.

With culture I’m not talking about your office’s lunch, table tennis table, or that Christmas party where something happened that gave you and your colleagues a funny story to tell. Nor am I talking about your organisation’s values that you wrote down a while ago with a consultant, which have been hanging on the wall ever since, or are somewhere on a drive (but where?).

For me, culture is the combination of conscious and unconscious values and actions of your organisation. All these together is what gives the company a certain feel, a certain culture.

Let’s make it a bit more concrete, by introducing you to Emeritus MIT Professor Edgar Schein — the Mr. Miyagi of organizational culture. After years of work and research, Schein developed a model to understand culture and work with it. I like it because it’s so thorough yet simple.

Schein defines culture as:

  1. A pattern of shared basic assumptions
  2. Learned (invented, discovered, or developed) by a group
  3. As it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration
  4. Which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore,
  5. To be taught to new members as
  6. The correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

In other words, organizational culture is:

A learned solution of how to make sense of the world, deal with it, and how to be a successful group — taught to new members

How does culture come into existence then? How does a company get a certain culture? Simply put, culture is created in three ways:

  • The beliefs, values, and assumptions of the founder(s)
  • The learning experiences of members as the organization evolves
  • The beliefs, values and assumptions of new leaders and members

Of all the above, founders have by far the biggest impact on an organization’s culture. Few organizations form accidentally or spontaneously. When starting a company, founders choose its basic mission, its operating context and its members.

Like all humans, founders have assumptions about the nature of the world, the role organizations play in it, how relationships are built, how truth is formed and how to manage time and space. When they start a company, their assumptions get tested. If they are wrong, the organization fails. If the assumptions are right, the company continues to exist. That’s why founders subconsciously impose their ways of perceiving, thinking, and feeling on members’ behaviour — creating the culture of the organization.

This doesn’t mean that a culture is static or can be finished. Quite the contrary: culture continuously changes because of factors like new members, new contexts or new decisions.

Culture is created by the interaction between people. That’s why a group always has a culture from the get-go. It doesn’t matter if you have never actively worked with it or not, there’s always a culture because there’s always a way of how things are done.

What is the perfect culture then? I often get asked this question. But to be honest, there’s no such thing as an objectively perfect culture. Your culture should support your organization’s needs in the best possible way. That’s it. Having said that, I do believe some elements should be part of every culture, because they are necessary for a healthy culture. Examples are psychological safety and giving and receiving feedback.

You can’t control your culture completely, but there are ways how you can steer or influence it. Question then is, how are you going to make your culture support your organization in the best possible way? To do that, you have to observe it first.

How Can I Observe Culture?

Schein believed organisational culture consists of three levels: the artefacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying basic assumptions. Think of it as an iceberg where one level is above sea and two are below. Let me explain what they mean.

1. Artefacts

At the surface are the artefacts which include all the objects and processes that you can see, hear and feel when experiencing a culture. They can range from the architecture of the office, the clothes people wear, how they celebrate birthdays, to published values or stories told about the organisation. Though they might be easily observable, their meaning might be hard to decipher or understand.

2. Espoused Beliefs & Values

One level below are the espoused beliefs and values. They are day-to-day operating principles by which members of the group guide their behavior. Something that proved successful in the past becomes an assumption and a belief, or something people come to value. These are for example the strategies, mission and values of the organization. But this doesn’t mean the values and beliefs the organization communicates it finds important are the same as the values the organization actually works by. An organization might for example say it highly values making democratic decisions, while in reality the CEO is the only person who decides.

3. Underlying Basic Assumptions

On the lowest level are the underlying basic assumptions. These are subconscious, taken for granted, beliefs. These thoughts and feelings determine how we perceive the world and how we behave. The society we grew up in or live in, our past experiences and science are examples of things that form our underlying basic assumptions.

Let’s make this even more concrete. Now that you know all of the above, I want you to think about the organization. Can you come up with an example of an artefact, and an underlying basic assumption?

If not, let me help you by giving you one. As a side-note, I believe the Iceberg applies to organizations as well as individuals. Therefore, to explain this as clearly as I can, I’m going to share a personal example.

Let’s start at the bottom. As an underlying basic assumption, I believe that us humans don’t live in balance with the world, and we are the main reason for climate change, which obviously is not good. This is what science taught me, what I’ve read about for years in the media, and this is what I see happening when I look around me. It is something I believe subconsciously and perceive the world around me from. Because of this assumption, I decided long ago that “with everything I do, I want to make as little environmental impact as possible. I would say it’s one of my espoused values and beliefs. This value then manifests itself in behaviour such as me being a vegetarian for 8 years or that I try to fly and consume as little as possible. Doing these things is my visible behaviour, thus these are my artefacts.

See how this works? Can you come up with an example for yourself or your organisation?

Are you having difficulty observing and understanding your culture? That’s why I have developed the Culture Canvas, to help you work with your organization’s culture in a clear, structured and easy way. Use it for free here!

Psssssst… I’m launching the latest version soon. Want to use it? Get in touch!

Why Is Culture Important Now?

Working with organizational culture has never been more important than today. Making the people in your organization work together in the best possible way is key for an organization to survive in today’s world. More importantly, organizations today face additional challenges that are cultural in their fundament, and require an adequate response.

First of all, and as relevant as last year, is the cultural challenge COVID brought us: how to work effectively remotely or hybrid? I’m not talking about which tools you need to use to collaborate, I’m talking about challenges such as creating a sense of belonging, safety and engagement when everyone works from home, how to separate your personal life from your professional if both are happening in the same space, and finally, how to assess which employee to promote when one works in the office while the other stays at home.

With more people working from somewhere else, the office plays a smaller role in differentiating yourself from others. How to attract talent when free lunch and beers on Thursdays are not an option anymore? Without an office, culture is one of the few things left, so use how you work together to differentiate yourself from others.

Finally, and arguably the most important thing, organizations are being asked to solve bigger societal problems: Technology is forcing organizations to reconsider how jobs are performed, our organizations need to be accessible and inclusive for all kinds of people, and last but not least, organizations have their share in preventing a climate crisis from happening.

How can we adapt and create organizations that deal with these challenges? The solution starts by taking a step back, understanding how today’s work lies at the cause of these challenges and rethinking how we run organizations and work together — so we can do things differently.

What Will Be the Return on Investment?

Do you have an idea what will help you and your colleagues work better together? Do you have an idea what needs to happen? Working with your culture costs time and money. But what will be the benefit of investing in your organization’s culture? What’s the return on investment?

I would’ve loved to share research with you that shows that every euro, dollar, pound — every X amount of money invested — will come back to you threefold.

But I can’t.

I’ve searched properly, but to be honest, most of the research I found about the ROI of culture is too insufficient or draws too fast to conclusions. If you have some awesome research showing this, I’d love to hear about it!

But actually this doesn’t matter, because we still get an answer if we rephrase the question. Instead of asking what the ROI of culture is, let me ask you this: what is the benefit of good communication? How much time will you gain with effective meetings? How much lower will your expenses be if less employees have a burn-out? How much more productive will your organization be if its people are happy, feel valued, and motivated?

There’s your return on investment.

Wrapping Up

Now that you have a better understanding of organizational culture and how to observe it, it’s time to actually work with it yourself. What needs to change to make the people in your organization work better together? And what are your next steps to realize that?

To help you do that in the best possible way, I’ll share my tips in my next article based on what I’ve learned working with culture for almost four years — so you know where to start and what to focus on to make the people in your organization work better together. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about kickstarting change in your organization, get in touch.