Decode Organization Culture

Culture is about the unspoken rules that tells someone new how to behave. Anthropologists immerse themselves in different cultures and make sense of the societal culture. This can make the strange or exotic seem familiar and make us what question why we do what we do. Some of their tools can be very powerful to decode the culture of organizations.

Ask the why behind the "classification"

A senior leader at Adidas asked in the middle of a strategy workshop, "Is yoga a sport?" This led him to start asking the most fundamental questions about the products he was making and selling. What do we do here? How do we define ourselves? That in turn led to his asking the question, "What are sports?"

You can imagine the reaction to that question in a company like Adidas that had always sold to high-performance products to athletes.. That question however led to the discovery of a growing group of people who were highly engaged in sports without self-identifying as athletes. They trained with the intent of becoming fit. But they also wanted their gear to look stylish and trendy. “Athleisure” is one of the most lucrative segments. During the lockdown, people wore track pants all day, maybe to compensate for not being able to step out.

If yoga is not seen to be a sport, it will not enter the radar of the business. When we don't know enough about something, it does not tickle our curio

Read: Culture can make organizations succeed or fail

Familiar in one, strange in the other

Every organization claims to be meritocratic, a great place to work and highly collaborative. Most new hires describe the difficulty they have in getting past the 'immune system' of the old guard. Without building social connections in the new cultural context, new hires cannot navigate the complex web of relationships and unwritten rules. No wonder so many new hires fail. Anthropologists decode unfamiliar cultures. Learning about their tools can be helpful for everyone because the same words can have totally different meanings in a different context or society.

"In Venezuela, where showing up early or on time is seen as a rude gesture. In China, if you burp, it indicates to your host that you enjoyed your meal, and the same is true for making loud slurping noises in Japan." Read more

Disagreeing with the boss is applauded in one organization and could lead to termination in another. Being able to understand the unspoken rules that governs the culture of the business is necessary for every new leader or new hire.

These rules about what is the “right” way to behave is passed on from generation to generation. Our idea of what is pretty (or ugly), what is fashionable or tacky helps us divide and classify the world. They are also the reasons why we find someone’s behaviour strange or weird.

That is just what anthropologists do. They go into a society and observe the behaviour patterns and taboos and rituals. Then they try and understand the mind map of that culture. This method can be truly powerful for people to make sense of an organization’s culture.

The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett is a great read to get started. I made some notes as I read it. If you have any questions or clarifications leave a comment.

Social connections build trust

A fish does not realise that it is swimming in water. The diver certainly is aware of the water around. Think of the organization's culture as the water in which all the fishes are swimming. Since all organizations claim to be very non-hierarchical, it takes a long time for a new hire to identify the king (or queen) and the king-makers.

The CEO may decide that the team working on that project needs to be kept away from prying eyes. The team working on the most important project gets isolated and has no supporters in the main hub. The wall of exclusivity turns out to be a prison. Until a new hire comes along...

Sometimes a new hire asks an innocent question, “If their work is critical for our future, why are they seated with the rest of us, so we can help them.” We know that new hires are not taken seriously because the old timers laugh aloud and wonder, what these newbies know about their complex world, anyway.

How do we master unwritten rules? Silos and beliefs often represent the past successes. What may have been true at some stage may no longer be relevant today. When researchers ask people to answer their surveys, they get to know what the person believes is the “socially desirable” response but in no way explains why they do what they do. This is where observing what people do is better than listening to only what they say.

Leverage your new hires

The lockdown made us question An obsession with productivity creates silos. When all social interaction is viewed with a lens of suspicion and as a waste of time, everyone puts their head down and ignores their colleagues. One of the most powerful ways to break silos is to build in slack and create space for social ties to be built across functional silos. It helps new hires get absorbed into the new culture.

Read about Social Grooming - and why it matters in building culture

Common induction processes across hierarchy and functions or business units is a great way to build social connections. The offsite creates greater opportunity to form strong bonds and needs to be viewed much more than a way to be efficient.

Anthropologists observe the rituals and classifications. They also pay attention to what is NOT discussed. These are called ‘Social Silences’ and are taboo. What are the parts of the organization where there is no debate because it is too complex, or has no interest from stakeholders.

How to build this mindset?

  1. Listen to stories of the organization.
  2. Listen to stories of people and observe their social interactions
  3. Look for places where the day-to-day practises contradict the organization’s mission, vision and stated values. When you ask people why they do what they do, the reason they share may be a starting point to explore further.

Anthropology can make the strange look familiar and the familiar look strange. This means not just looking at what is logical but also what is socially accepted (or rebelled against). This skill may be the leader’s secret weapon to drive cultural change.


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