What is culture?

There are many definitions of culture, but here is one that resonates with GovEx: culture is the difference between what you tolerate and don’t tolerate.

Seem simple, right? Unfortunately, culture is more complicated when you start to unpack it. Why?

  1. Culture is the unconscious interaction of many elements: people, assumptions, processes, norms, goals, beliefs, traditions, values, thoughts, attitudes, practices, behaviors, feelings, habits, etc. When people talk about culture, they are likely referring to one or more pieces of the puzzle that compose an organization’s overall culture. So understanding culture requires thinking about system dynamics, which rarely yields easy explanations or concrete solutions.
  2. Culture is causal and dependent. An organization’s culture impacts its performance and value creation, but the reverse is also true. Culture is affected by the knowledge, talent, technology, decisions, and performance of the organization.
  3. Culture is not singular. One organization can have many cultures, sub-cultures, and micro-cultures. So the first response to the ubiquitous question “how do we change our culture” is “which one?” Multiple cultures in one government creates confusion and inconsistency for residents.
  4. Culture is a malleable legacy. We are what we repeatedly do, and people either believe culture is impossible to change or that they can change it quickly with a new leader. Neither are true. Culture is an organizational legacy which must be carefully shaped and shifted over time. New leadership is helpful, but not a silver bullet.

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