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Shaping Organizational Culture: A Practitioner’s Perspective


“For most people, corporate culture is a vague and slippery concept at best. Almost everyone agrees that it is an important factor in the success or failure of any organization, but many people have difficulty pinning down exactly what their corporate culture is and are truly at a loss when it comes to knowing how to change it.”—Peg Neuhauser1

Every organization has a culture: regardless of size, age, or industry. What separates many leading companies from their competitors is the ability to intentionally shape and leverage culture to bolster their business goals; the ability to engage the hearts and minds of their employees; and the ability to create an environment where people are inspired to achieve extraordinary results.

In eras past, the discussion of culture was reserved primarily for academics, with only a backwards glance to business application; very little has been written addressing the practical aspects of shaping culture in the real world. In the absence of such information, many business leaders are left with a sense of operational paralysis when attempting to shape culture. Confronted with market changes, global competition, and changing business models, these well-intentioned individuals set off to change their companies’ cultures armed with the desire to affect change, but little knowledge on how. I have witnessed many practitioners (note: the term “practitioner” is used to refer to individuals—line and staff—who play a role in shaping organizational culture) compensate for this lack of practical knowledge by creating overly complex culture initiatives, or by involving small armies of external consultants—both of which run counter to involving and energizing the workforce. Culture initiatives need not be models of complexity, nor the exclusive realm of “culture experts.” By understanding the key levers which influence culture, individuals throughout an organization can begin to take actions that influence the culture and shape what the organization will become.

What is culture?

In order to assess current experience, practitioners were involved in a research study, “Shaping Organizational Culture: A Cross-Functional Study on Real-World Practice.” Of the nearly 200 people who participated—including leaders at every level, from every functional area, across multiple industries and multiple continents—there was a high level of agreement that, “actively shaping culture is necessary for organizations to achieve their strategic goals.” However, less than 25% of our study population agreed that, “the concept of organizational culture is widely understood” (see Diagram 1). That gap presents a tremendous opportunity for individuals who lead culture initiatives: while the concept of organizational culture may not be widely understood, study participants recognize there is great value in doing so. Therefore, it seems that any discussion on how to bridge this gap must begin with a definition.

Edgar Schein, a foundational thinker in the field of organizational culture, offers the following:

The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.2

While this definition is widely accepted and of proven worth in academic discussions on the topic, practitioners often find the language overly conceptual or see little connection to concrete business actions.

Working in the field over the past 20 years, I have developed an alternate definition for the practitioner:

Culture is a social energy built over time, which can move people to act or impede them from acting. Culture will develop by design or default; an organization’s ability to shape its culture is determined primarily by its level of intention.

To some encountering this definition for the first time, the term “social energy” can feel esoteric. The reaction is understandable given the intangible nature of culture. At its root, however, this “social energy” is comprised of interactions among people: everyone from the CEO to the frontline employee, in forums ranging from structured company meetings, to one-on-one interactions with managers, to casual conversations around the water cooler. When we talk about culture, we are talking about the quality of those interactions and whether they make individuals more or less engaged with the organization. As a result of their interactions, how do people choose to behave?

Looking further at this definition, it is important to stress that cultures are built—and change—over time: it takes thousands of individual actions, both large and small, over a period of weeks, months, and years. Cultures are constantly evolving and reacting to shifts in the organizational environment, and the culture that serves an organization’s strategic goals today may not be the culture it needs to compete in the future. Given this dynamic nature, culture must be viewed as a living construct in need of continued support and attention.

Finally, this definition for practitioners reinforces that the ability to shape organizational culture is a matter of choice.

CEOs and middle managers who choose to ignore their corporate culture—to let it evolve or “just happen”—do so at some risk to their own career success and the success of their organization. Conversely, CEOs and middle managers who make the conscious decision to plan, create, implement, and nurture a specific corporate culture have the potential to reap significant benefits.3

Once the benefits of attending to culture are realized and leaders commit to developing their organization, even individuals who lack experience will find that the necessary skills can be readily developed. “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.”4 The importance of that sincere commitment—to make culture a strategic imperative and to follow through on its development, despite roadblocks—cannot be stressed enough. There is a Native American saying that states, “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins…not through strength, but through persistence.” In Western business, there is a propensity to abandon initiatives when they do not produce results quickly. Those who are most successful in shaping culture are those who exercise good, old-fashioned “stick-to-itiveness” right at the moment when abandoning the effort would be the easier course of action.

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  1. Neuhauser, P. C. (2005). “Strategies for Changing Your Corporate Culture.” [On-line]. Available: www.culturedotcom.com/culturedotcom/article_4.htm 

  2. Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 12. 

  3. Valentino, C. L. (2004, November-December). “The role of middle managers in the transmission and integration of organizational culture.” Journal of Healthcare Management, 49(6). p. 393(12). 

  4. Schein, p. 15. 

Friday, April 15th, 2005  Tags: ,

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