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Changing the layers of organisational culture - Intro

Updated: Jun 17

An article in the 'Onion' series by Niels Kooi

A red onion, cut in half, against a white background
Photo by See Kay on Unsplash

Changing your company's culture might seem formidable, but rest assured, it's not only possible but also essential for long-term success. As a firm believer that a company's culture comprises various layers, I advocate for commencing this transformative process from the core and gradually expanding outward. But what exactly are these layers, and how do they interconnect to shape your culture? This article will give you an introduction into the four layers, and the direction of change. Subsequent articles will explore each layer further.

Let's initiate our exploration by delving into individual identity before making the leap to organisational identity. Admittedly, I find myself using the terms "culture" and "identity" interchangeably, and for good reason. On an individual level, your inner workings should ideally align with your 'personal brand', though this isn't always the case for organisations. Culture serves as the internal manifestation of a company's identity, encompassing its operational dynamics, decision-making processes, and collective enthusiasm for initiatives. On the flip side, the external manifestation of a company's identity is its brand and reputation.

It's easy to discern why an organisational identity can diverge between external and internal perspectives. External identity management typically falls within the purview of a select few: marketers, sales personnel, customer contact centre employees, and the like. On the other hand, internal identity is not only shaped but lived every day by everyone within the organisation. While brand and reputation are meticulously curated, the same level of diligence might not be applied to the everyday workings and culture. Interestingly, this dynamic doesn't hold true at the individual level, where personal brand and identity are actively managed, and incongruities can be challenging. I have met a couple of people over the course of my life who pretended to be someone else, and they were not the happiest people I've come across.

Various degrees of alignment between external and internal identity

Similar principles apply to organisations: those with a substantial alignment between their internal and external identity tend to outperform those with a mismatch. Aligned organisations experience lower staff turnover, reduced absenteeism, heightened engagement, increased productivity, and superior financial results. This article series will focus on the internal identity and the composition of organisational culture, steering clear of delving into the intricacies of an individual's identity.

Now, let's navigate through the layers of organisational culture. At its core, we encounter the appropriately named 'core' values, sometimes interchangeably referred to as corporate or organisational values. Typically numbering three to five, these values act as the driving forces behind your company's culture. It's crucial to note that the values displayed prominently behind the reception desk may differ significantly from the organisation's actual values. Adjacent to core values, we find non-core values, which may vary across the organisation or differ between business units. For the sake of brevity, let's assume uniformity. Values are expressed as positive nouns, often concluding with -ion, -ity, or -ness.

Word cloud examples of values

The second layer encompasses organisational paradigms. Most organisations will have multiple - say five to ten - widely accepted convictions or beliefs that often stem from organisational values. For instance, if there's a value emphasising entrepreneurship, an associated paradigm might endorse the belief that hard work leads to favourable outcomes. Now, I hear what you're thinking: "that's not a paradigm, that a plane and simple truth". But it's not. If you work very hard, but you're going in the wrong direction, you're not getting results. The overall idea that if you're "busy", it means that you're doing something right, is also often a paradigm linked to entrepreneurship. It's important to distinguish paradigms from simple truths; they are subjective and context-dependent.

Moving on to the third layer, we encounter competencies. Typically organisations will have ten to 20 of these capabilities. These are sets of demonstrable characteristics and skills enhancing job performance efficiency. Unlike values and paradigms, competencies can be changed over time either organically through training and development, or inorganically through strategic acquisitions. Organisational competencies are often (but not always) linked to the values, and also often (but not always) connected to the behaviours, through a so-called competency framework. For instance, in a specific company the value "collaboration", might have two competencies attached to it: "Leading virtual and diverse teams" and "Communication". This connection (between values and competencies) may be very different across organisations. This is due to industry, geography and maturity specifics of the organisation.

The fourth and final layer consists of behaviours. Organisations that use a competency framework will often have a list of behaviours as well, spelled out per function and hierarchical level. Where values are often words, paradigms are sentences, and competencies are mostly word clusters, behaviours can be sentences or paragraphs. And even though these behaviours are often very prescriptive, and leave little room for interpretation, they are also the most flexible in terms of change. And that's also because organisations are made up of people, and people are susceptible to incentives. So, if you'd like to see different behaviours, you incentivise 'good' behaviour, and punish 'bad' behaviour. If you do that to enough people, the organisation will behave in a certain way. You can't really do the same with competencies, paradigms or values.

In summary, this is what the layers of an organisational culture look like. From outside to inside we have (core) values, paradigms, competencies and behaviours.

Now, how to change this? And where to start? A lot of organisations believe (yet another paradigm) that you can go about culture change, by changing the behaviours. Apart from the semantics of behaviour change vs culture change, I have yet to see this work effectively. Behaviour change, without touching your competencies, paradigms and values will not be sustainable. Don't get me wrong: you can - on an organisational level - change how people behave through incentives. It's fast but it's a lot of effort to maintain, and if you remove the carrots and sticks, the behaviours will bounce right back. It's also a great way to create a toxic environment,  where trust is low, where people feel like they're being watched, and where people will do almost anything to get their bonuses.

In crisis situations, where you need to respond fast, it could still be the best strategy. We all remember how organisations behaved differently throughout the pandemic. Organisational behaviours can basically change overnight. Culture change, and sustainable behaviour change, however, can only be achieved if driven from the inside (where the values sit). This article series will provide insights in how to do that, starting with the values, and working its way out all the way to behaviours.

Continue reading with the following articles:


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