Twenty-Eight Keys to Unlocking Organizational Culture

There are myriad reasons to investigate an organization’s culture. Employees may want to better understand the ecosystem in which they work. A job seeker may want to check out a prospective employer. A corporate suitor might perform due diligence for an acquisition or merger. An academic may simply want to do research. Regardless of reason, there are some basic elements to understanding the culture of an organization.

Here are twenty-eight key areas to interrogate in order to develop a useful snapshot of any organization’s culture:

  1. Meetings. What is the frequency and duration of meetings? Do meetings have a purpose? Do meetings start and end on time? Do participants respect and listen to all voices? Do individuals demand clarity regarding follow-up actions and accountabilities?
  2. Pronouns. What are the prevailing pronouns used in speech and writing? Do they trend toward “we”, “us”, “our”, “ours”? Or are pronouns mostly about “me”, “I”, “my”, “mine”?
  3. Work/Life Balance. What do working hours and workweeks look like? Do people typically stay late? Or do they go home at a reasonable hour after a productive day at work, ready to refresh and return another day?
  4. Conflict. How does the organization manage conflict? Do people maintain trust, and work to resolve differences on their own? Or do they delegate conflict resolution to a third party, let the conflict smolder, or engage in destructive gossip?
  5. Management Structure. How many management layers does the organization maintain? What is the compensation ratio between the highest-paid and lowest-paid employee?
  6. Happiness. Do individuals in the workplace seem happy? Are they friendly? Do they smile? Say hello? Make new colleagues and visitors feel welcome?
  7. Reading Material. What literature is available in the reception area? Does the organization prominently display items like the mission, vision, values and principles? Are there professional magazines and journals that align with the mission of the organization? Do espoused values seem aligned with observed behavior?
  8. Approachability. Are people approachable–especially managers? Do people scatter or scurry when they see a manager approaching? Do individuals appear to be comfortable approaching others, regardless of level?
  9. Credit Sharing. Are people willing to share credit for success with others? Do they point fingers when things go wrong? Do people see failures as learning opportunities? Is the environment rife with politics?
  10. Physical Facilities and Layout. Are workspaces for managers and executives separate from other workspaces? If so, are those workspaces nicer? Are those spaces located close to the action, where actual productive work occurs? Are there separate bathrooms, cafeterias, parking spaces?
  11. Benefits and Perks. Does everyone have access to the same benefits and perks? Or are the benefits and perks stratified according to levels?
  12. Environmental and Hygiene Factors. Does everyone have access to appropriate lighting, heating, cooling, safety, sanitation, personal security, comfort? Are any distinctions based on bona fide work conditions, and not management levels?
  13. Dress. Are different types of clothing and dress related to bona fide work conditions, and not to management levels? Is there an enforceable dress code? If so, is it related to bona fide work conditions?
  14. Internal Stakeholders. Does everyone have a voice in decisions that affect them? Or are decisions imposed from above, with or without input?
  15. External Stakeholders. Does organizational behavior reflect awareness of the critical importance of customers, suppliers, community members, regulators and other external stakeholders?
  16. Professional Growth. Does everyone have an opportunity for professional growth? Does the organization encourage and support work-related education and training?
  17. Innovation. Is everyone free to ideate and innovate? To generate ideas and receive serious, responsible and appropriate feedback? To embrace any leadership opportunities resulting from idea adoption?
  18. Leadership. Is everyone free to provide leadership in the organization as circumstances arise? Does the organization support and encourage leaders everywhere?
  19. Professional Courtesy. Do people in the organization routinely treat each other with professional courtesy? Do they truly listen to each other? Do they use the appropriate channels of communication for messages?
  20. Trust. When individuals request and receive commitments from others, do they trust the other person to either fulfill the commitment, or seek to re-negotiate the parameters? Do individuals in this organization routinely fulfill commitments?
  21. Language. Are people human resources or human beings? Do people talk about headcount, direct reports and bosses?
  22. Employee Handbook. Is it the size of a telephone book, burdened with rules and regulations that require a lawyer to understand and interpret?
  23. Discipline. Is there a “progressive discipline” system in place? If so, who is authorized to administer “discipline” and why?
  24. Termination. Are individuals authorized to unilaterally terminate the employment of another person? If so, who is authorized to do so and why?
  25. Social Glue. Does the organization sponsor social events that include families, to foster relationships and goodwill?
  26. Messages. What messages does the organization send to employees? Does it require mandatory training (i.e., “you’re not good enough the way you are, and you’re not smart enough to figure out on your own what skills or knowledge you need to develop”)?
  27. Evaluation. Does the organization adhere to the industrial age annual performance review (which everyone hates, on both sides of the table)? Or does it allow people to develop and communicate meaningful metrics and evaluate themselves and the peers with whom they work?
  28. Rewards. Does the organization compensate appropriately and provide engaging work, or does it brandish carrots and sticks to provide external motivation?

Edgar Schein, the culture expert from MIT and author of several books, including the delightful Corporate Culture Survival Guide, describes various artifacts of workplace culture that can illuminate the truth of a given situation. He describes organizational culture as the learned, shared tacit assumptions on which people base behavior. The word ‘tacit’ means understood, without necessarily being expressed. Just as fish swim in water of which they are blissfully unaware, people work in cultures that usually flow beneath the level of conscious awareness. But the currents in those waters are strong, and strongly affect behavior.

If a prospective employee studies a culture in which he or she is offered a job and learns that it is rigidly hierarchical, legalistic, and lacks trust, then one can choose to work there or not. But that person cannot say that they chose the culture unaware. They have chosen, for better or worse.

Better to make an informed choice, earlier, than to be badly disappointed later.


This article originally appeared in Great Work Cultures Blog at The Huffington Post,

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