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The Enigma of Organisational Culture

(Written July 2020)

Definition of Organisational Culture (OC): 

“the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave in relation to those problems. This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.” (Schein and Schein, 2016).

A quick Google search will give you so many different definitions it can be dizzying. But rest assured, to read this document, finding a definition you are happy with is not “yet” important, but do find one that sits well with you as you’ll need it at some point.

The definition of a car is “a road vehicle for one driver and a few passengers. Someone who drives a car is called a driver or a motorist” (Floyd, 2018). Ask anyone to offer their thoughts on the definition of a car, and again you’ll find many variations. Yet all of those people will know what a great car is because it is personal to them and sometimes situational too.

What OC means to each organisation can differ greatly! For example, what have you noticed between the organisations you have worked for? How has one approach to OC differed from the other? If one was better than the other, what made it better?

The crime:

It may seem a bit strong to call it a crime, but that’s precisely how we see it. Not fostering or monitoring your OC is a crime against your people and your organisation. It restricts openness and the freedom to speak. We must not restrict what people want/need to say! 

When we pay an employee, we fulfil our mutually agreed contract. If someone didn’t receive their pay or less than they should, they would fix that quickly. I hear you thinking, “but that is contractual,” and yes, you’d be right. But that is my point. Why do we not have our organisational values written into job descriptions? Why do we not hold everyone responsible and accountable for their behaviour in our culture?

The litmus test for your OC

People and their level of contentment at work is the litmus test for your organisational culture's health. I am not saying they should be laughing and joking all day, but they should be getting on, and having a laugh now and again, supporting each other, and feeling recognised, rewarded and motivated. They will work well in their environment and feel they can say pretty much anything politely and professionally.

To truly discover how well your OC is working, you must first have certain things in place and working. We strongly suggest an “Organisational Culture Engagement Team” (OCET), which works and gathers the evidence you require, and your OCET will provide that evidence through the data they gather regularly. Having said that, gathering data from people is difficult as people often hide their true feelings defensively (Schein, 2010).

Go and walk amongst your people, chat with them regularly, and you will get to know their worries, concerns, what drives them, and what they love or hate about the organisation. In EI, Social Awareness is the key to building and maintaining relationships (and that is for home and work).

Walking the walk:

An organisation employs a person to work for them based on the skillset the organisation requires and the skillset the person they are employing possesses. So if your organisational values are (for example) “Open, honest, accountable, responsible, authentic”, and people are not, then why on earth have those values if they are not lived by? Unless, of course, it is purely what we refer to as a “flag-waving” activity to tick a box! Yes, it happens a lot! 

If your people see that you do not actively promote, monitor and expect your organisational values to be lived by all; that you do not hold everyone accountable and responsible for the upkeep of your values, then your values are pretty much worthless! Furthermore, the lack of them being upheld will create tension, disputes, ill-feeling and even help to create saboteurs.

When I say saboteurs, I mean that if an employee perceives injustice exists and they are the victim of that injustice, they will purposely withhold information, delay figures or not pass on additional information (Greenberg and Colquitt, 2013). They just want to make someone else’s world a bit more difficult as payback for the injustice they believe has been caused to them and possibly their colleagues. Humans can be a complicated and vengeful species, capable of all manner of retribution if we believe we have been wronged. I think that every person reading this article will have experienced a saboteur or two in their time.

OC is rarely actively driven, nurtured and seldom monitored. Through a lack of accountability and responsibility, we cause the very issues which haunt us, including favouritism, behavioural issues, absenteeism, sick leave due to stress, and finally, that killer of retention issues where many great or potentially great people leave for better organisations.

People usually leave an organisation because of other people or working cultures that go directly against their values. If you have organisational values, then for goodness' sake, engage with them fully. Don’t splash them everywhere and then do nothing with them! That’s like buying shopping and leaving it to rot! 

The OC enigma:

Enigma: “a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation”.(DICTIONARY, 2020).

I have described OC as an “enigma” due to my experiences with many organisations I have worked closely with. Some really baffle me.

The enigma is that while organisations publicly share their description of their OC through their organisational values, they rarely drive, cultivate and monitor their presented culture and values through a rigorous OC programme. Values and behaviours are not monitored or lived by their people, and there is no responsibility or accountability anywhere. The enigma is, therefore, “why”?

In my experience, most senior leaders within organisations believe (or choose to believe) that everyone upholds the values. Some will even support this belief by saying that when they ask their people, the answer is generally, “yes, everything is fine”. That is not evidence! The only evidence you have from that is that someone said: “yes, everything is fine”! The truth is, more often than not, totally different!

In some organisations I have worked with, it took many months to persuade the organisation to conduct an independent (external) survey on their employee satisfaction and engagement. In two of those cases, the organisations tried to push aside the route we strongly suggested. They did not allow their people to design and drive the change required and still have increased discontent, yet they continue to stick their heads in the sand! More of the enigma of OC!

Adding to our dismay and their future issues, they did not realise that their employees no longer trusted them.

Not addressing dissatisfaction immediately is signing the death warrant for employee engagement. Discontent, sabotage, bad temperament and low work output will grow, and of course, worst of all, you will lose great or potentially great employees (Edmonds, 2014).

All too often, we take information from others as truth/fact. But bear in mind that sometimes when people tell us “everything is just fine”, they may believe that they need to protect themselves. Look at the programme entitled “undercover boss”; it lets CEOs discover all sorts of issues they knew nothing about. Why didn’t they know of them? Nobody told them! Why? I’d imagine they didn’t want to risk the backlash or consequences of telling the truth!

Resolving the enigma!

First, identify what is wrong. Warning! This will probably be uncomfortable as you need to identify why your perceived culture is not what people “say” it is and ask why it has not been challenged. We call this the Phoenix Effect. Burn down all the misconceptions, the avoidance, and the assumptions, and do it quickly by promoting a better future for all. To do this, you’ll need people willing to speak freely, so build trust by creating a robust ES² environment. 

(An ES² environment is where the organisation provides Emotional Security so everyone has Emotional Safety knowing that they can be authentic and say whatever they wish, respectfully and without the fear of consequence or reprisal).

Second, establish your (OCET) made up of engaged and motivated individuals from all areas of your organisation. These people will become the engine for HR to drive your OC programme.

Third, plan, prepare and advertise your OC analysis workshops. These cannot be facilitated until the ES² environment is fully in place. These are open, searching and free speaking events where your people can say whatever they want. They must be allowed to do this for you to gather the true data you need for the programme.

Fourth, facilitate all the planned workshops in as short a time as possible. Attendees should ideally be from the same levels so there is no peer pressure which may prevent speaking freely. So team members, leaders/managers, senior leaders and managers, and your exec team (yes, them too).

Fifth? Ask us for a chat to discuss how to measure it and continuously monitor it. 

How do we create and cultivate a great OC?

OC is created like a wonderful recipe for a great meal. It is the combining of various ingredients that work together to form a mouth-watering and fulfilling outcome for all. It provides flavour, warmth, nutrition and sustenance for a wonderful, SAFE working environment.

The organisational values displayed everywhere must be brought to life through your robust OC programme. The responsibility for driving its success will rest with each team and will be supported, monitored and reported on by your newly founded OCET. (“Organisational Culture Engagement Team”).

But how is it created, or perhaps a better question is, what are the ingredients to ensure a great OC?

While we have been cheeky enough to suggest just three of the key ingredients, each of those three ingredients holds further critical ingredients:

  • Altrocentric and Collaborative Leadership – focused on the people.
  • Authenticity – be you and let ES² do the same for your people.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EI) – recognise and manage emotions intelligently.

Having created your OCET, empower it to do many things, which we’d happily recommend. Your OCET will become the engine that drives your OC programme onwards and upwards to success and a far better working environment. This will not be easy, but the more you invest in this, the quicker the difference will be felt across the organisation.

Regardless of what the organisation promotes as its OC, it is ALL about the feeling of each individual's lived experience. More often than not, this frequently differs between teams or areas of the organisation. It is rarely what the organisation says it is. This needs to change. Organisations need to get everyone on the same page regarding openness, honesty and feeling safe to show their vulnerability. As more people do this, more people will follow their lead. So regardless of your position, just get out there and lead from the front. Everyone can lead, regardless of their role or hierarchical position.

A growing number of wonderful organisations promote authenticity and care for their people in a totally ES² environment. For example, I attended a recent Zoom chat with some wonderful people such as Jodi Rabinowitz from Zoom, Laurel Farrer from Distribute Consulting, Morgan Smith-Leynard from Help Scout and Laïla von Alvensleben from Mural. All these people added an overarching focus on people, the individual needs of humans, listening and daring to be authentic… I could go on. Is the chat always work-focused? No, not at all! But the non-work moments of social engagement bring people together (Consulting, 2020).

What does a great OC look like?

When an organisation has a great OC which is proactively driven, I believe it is like a jigsaw. The jigsaw pieces are arguably delicate, but it is difficult to pull apart once it is complete. Why?

Because each piece helps the pieces beside them work together to keep themselves attached as they each form an integral part of the whole jigsaw. Jigsaws can be hard work to complete. They can take a long time, especially at the beginning when there is planning and preparation to complete. But as you complete it, the missing pieces become clearer and easier to find. And, of course, once it is complete, the picture appears, giving that feeling of achievement.

In the same way, an organisation with a robust OC programme will ensure that each element helps the other as each depends on the other to ensure unity and collaboration. This helps everyone become a living, breathing part of the OC programme.

OC is no different. Any organisation that genuinely wants to invest in its OC and reap the many rewards it will bring needs to understand and accept all the time, effort and commitment it will take to get it working and maintain it. Once complete, maintenance is easy as it just requires a great programme to support it and the right people to manage it. Start to live and breathe your values, and your people will walk beside you, unconsciously promoting how good it is to work at your organisation as it cares for its people.

Our Phoenix Effect takes you from the burning down of what didn’t work to implementing the new and best for your organisation. We are with you every step of the way with thoughts and suggestions. Show your customers and clients that you care about them and your own employees, and they will care about your organisation and respect and admire your brand because you care (Shockley-Zalabak et al., 2010).

Why is culture different between teams?

For this, I will split an organisation's culture into three categories.

Presented culture– where the organisation proudly portrays the culture they say or they think (are told) everyone exhibits.

Experienced culture– the real feeling of the organisation’s culture that people experience from working there.

Localised culture– this can be completely different between two teams situated right beside one another.

The trick, of course, is to get everyone onto that same page, which is not as difficult as it may initially seem.

How can we do this?

Well, there is a lot to consider but to give you a starter:

  • Identify where the OC is felt as great and analyse why it is felt in that way.
  • If it is due to a manager’s style, understand it first, consider the ingredients, and share them.
  • If the people drive it, then understand it first, consider the ingredients and share them too.
  • What are the individuals’ values? If they’re not certain, help them create new and unrealised values from their beliefs (Kegan et al, 2009).
  • What do THEY want the OC values to include?
  • What are the pain points for people regarding the culture?

What are some of the signs and causes of a toxic culture?

Key signs can include:

  • No enjoyment for their work, no informal chit-chat.
  • One-way communication (little or no interest in other people’s thoughts).
  • Personality and procedural issues are seldom raised due to fear of reprisal.
  • People infighting between teams or within teams keeps going unchecked.
  • Everything seems driven by policies (rather than as guides).
  • Senior leadership/management fighting for position and promotion.
  • A general feeling you need to keep quiet to stay safe.
  • Unhappy employees who whisper about low morale and how bad things are.
  • A distinct lack of care or empathy. (Empathy is not something we have “X” amount of, and that’s that. It is a skill and can, therefore, be developed) (Zaki, 2019).
  • Unconscious and conscious saboteurs exist and are unchecked.


1) Lack of training on managing others (EI, leadership skills etc).

2) Blockers - as in a leader or a manager (sometimes driven by others) such as:

  • Scared to allow innovation as they feel threatened by it.
  • Senior leader/manager drives a junior manager on targets/KPIs etc.
  • Stress! They are so stressed their behaviour is driven by emotion. (These can all be unconscious blockers).

3) Ineffective performance management processes. Examples may include:

  • We get different processes in each team.
  • No one really wants these as they are awkward.
  • They happen every 6/12 months, but nothing happens from them.
  • Personal development rarely materialises.
  • It feels like being back at school.

4) Lack of open, honest discussions and using the many heads approach.

5) Lack of real recognition and praise for effort, ideas and achievements.

6) No real permission to go “off-piste” and have a go at new.

7) No wider organisational community was fostered at all.

Why should all this matter to the organisation’s leadership?

It stifles the performance, innovation and productivity you could have.

If you think, “well, we’re still meeting our targets," you’ve missed the point. Even though you are hitting those targets, you’re killing morale, losing some great people, and costing the organisation through lost opportunity and greater output and success.

As said earlier, “People and their level of happiness at work is the litmus test for how healthy your organisational culture truly is”. If they’re not working, happily check it out!

Happy workers perform FAR better, offer more innovative ideas, talk positively about their organisation and LIVE the values and underpinning behaviours the organisation has agreed with them.

If you want to “bring people with you," then take the time to learn about them; they will help clean the culture for you (Jarrett, 2010).

Unhappy workers in a toxic environment will create unconscious and conscious saboteurs, cost you FAR more in staff turnover, cause more errors, attract more complaints and breed discontent within teams.

Having processes and having HR ensure people are encouraged to speak their thoughts and say how they truly feel is not enough! Research shows that in some cases, 50% of employees still feel unsafe doing so and therefore don’t speak out (Carroll et al., 2017).

An organisation's OC is not just to have a content and motivated workforce; it also attracts your customer's attention, which research shows attracts them to your organisation and your brand image (Rossi and Krey, 2019). You can’t buy that!

How can we improve our Organisational Culture?

  • Recognise where it truly is! Say that you can see it. Show your people that you’re honest, not blind, and want to improve things. (You’ve just started on the road to building trust).
  • Have weekly updates which should show change.
  • Help people understand that differences are not barriers but opportunities given to us to bridge a natural gap between how we are (Kegan et al., 2009).
  • CEO/MD to join your OCET for updates, agree on what is possible, and address anything impossible. A good reason must be presented (ideally with evidence).
  • CEO/MD to publish their thoughts in a newsletter run by the group (the CEO/MD should be seen as the guests in the OCET, which is benefiting from their input - they do NOT run it).
  • Values and underpinning behaviours are agreed upon and finalised by the people.

We have many more suggestions on improving your OC, so ask about our Phoenix Effect programme to get an idea.

OC Post-Pandemic:

I believe that if you think you need to do something different because of the lockdown and enforced remote working, then, in my opinion, you were missing something key before the lockdown started. OC is OC, regardless of whether your people are in the office or working remotely. We may need different approaches and to be more creative by designing engaging online interactions, but the essence of OC is still the same. We should always have been:

  • Listening to what our people think, not always what they feel they “have” to say.
  • Helping our people feel safe to speak out by ensuring ES². (the organisation provides Emotional Security, and from that, people gain a feeling of Emotional Safety, feeling completely safe to say what they wish).
  • Being proactive and giving them the freedom to work in their way.
  • Encourage and reward innovation and challenge.
  • Using informal check-in interactions for more than just “are you ok”.

However, if I am working remotely, especially from home, that is now my workspace. The person with the most impact on my workspace usually checks in with me, my manager/team leader. Therefore, it stands to reason that if my lifeline to the office is one person, they may not correctly impact my workspace and well-being. 

If you do not have a well-trained manager, the impact will generally not be great, and again, people leave managers (Onnis, 2018). So involve your whole team and employ our ROPE concept (Remote Office Pairing for Engagement) to ensure people are truly connected to their work colleagues and office workspace discussions.

Quotes as food for thought:

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”- Steve Jobs.

"I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way."- Lee Iacocca.

“True compassion means not only feeling another's pain but also being moved to help relieve it”. - Daniel Goleman. 

“When we truly empower our people (ES²), real authenticity, untapped innovation, and Emotional Intelligence brings clarity to communication and produces extraordinary colleague relationships” - Mac Macdonald.

If there is one thing the lockdowns across the world have shown us, it is that we all have to treat each other as fellow humans regardless of hierarchical position, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and all the other ingredients which make us “US”. Take all of these and more and respect them, praise them, give time to ask and learn about them, understand that we are different and celebrate it. But most importantly, be considerate.

“Truly engage with others by showing you care 

and that in your genuine authenticity, you, too, are vulnerable. 

This is all about being human, and and building trust through consistency”

~ Mac Macdonald ~

Written by - Mac Macdonald

Please share this document with anyone you feel may be interested.


CARROLL, A. B., BROWN, J. & BUCHHOLTZ, A. K. 2017.Business & Society: Ethics, Sustainability & Stakeholder Management, Cengage Learning.

CONSULTING, L. F.-D. 2020. 5 Steps to Adapt Company Culture for Remote Work.

DICTIONARY, T. R. H. U. 2020. Definition of Enigma.

EDMONDS, S. C. 2014.The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace, Wiley.

FLOYD, W. 2018.Definition, Floating Records Press.

GREENBERG, J. & COLQUITT, J. A. 2013.Handbook of Organizational Justice, Taylor & Francis.

JARRETT, M. 2010.Changeability: Why some companies are ready for change - and others aren't, Pearson Education Limited.

KEGAN, R., KEGAN, L. L. L. R. & LAHEY, L. L. 2009.Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Business Press.

ONNIS, L. 2018.HRM and Remote Health Workforce Sustainability: The Influence of Localised Management Practices, Springer Singapore.

ROSSI, P. & KREY, N. 2019.Finding New Ways to Engage and Satisfy Global Customers: Proceedings of the 2018 Academy of Marketing Science (AMS) World Marketing Congress (WMC), Springer International Publishing.

SCHEIN, E. H. 2010.Organizational Culture and Leadership, Wiley.

SCHEIN, E. H. & SCHEIN, P. A. 2016.Organizational Culture and Leadership, Wiley.

SHOCKLEY-ZALABAK, P. S., MORREALE, S. & HACKMAN, M. 2010.Building the High-Trust Organization: Strategies for Supporting Five Key Dimensions of Trust, Wiley.

ZAKI, J. 2019.The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Little, Brown Book Group.

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