Organizational Excellence

People and Process Improvement

Archive for March 2012

Norms and Culture: Structured or Organic?

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For well over a year I’ve been working hard on the boss (OK…I’ve been obnoxiously, doggedly persistent) on how badly we need to put clear definition and substance behind “The (Company Name) Way”…our version of a beliefs statement. I’ve been looking at norms and culture as something you can set clear expectations around to accomplish. But have I been missing the mark?

Culture is defined by shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices, expectations (norms) rules and a lot more. Norms are implied or stated behavioral expectations based on the group’s beliefs. Norms may be reinforced by official mandate and / or informal social pressure. There are rewards for compliance, and consequences for noncompliance.

Beliefs are highly individual. My beliefs may be considered by others to be highly quirky. But when a group shares the same quirks, somehow the quirks magically become norms that go a long ways toward defining a culture! So culture only takes hold when a critical mass believes in the same thing and lives it every day, whatever “it” is. If culture is strong the pressure to comply to norms is greater. By the same token the greater the compliance to norms, the stronger the culture. Culture and norms….chicken or egg?

My head hurts now, so back to the original dilemma. Can you force the issue with either culture or norms?

Money can’t buy it, slogans can’t make it happen, bosses can’t demand it. And laws and policy will get you compliance if you’re lucky. Maybe you can’t craft culture or mandate norms. 

You can’t put substance and structure into beliefs to make them more real, you can’t force “shared” beliefs even if you set clear expectations to behave in a way that models a set of beliefs. Beliefs are what they are, and they are highly individual.  By the same token you can over-document vision, and if you publish stated values they become dogma: We believe the moon is made of blue cheese and YOU will believe it too… or else!

Seriously? Culture, norms, values, beliefs just happen? I have a hard time leaving such critical things to chance.

What are the pros and cons? Can you / can’t you….should you / shouldn’t you clearly define and neatly package culture, norms, values, beliefs?


Written by Craig

March 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm