The Anatomy of Culture

Written by:

Conscious Alchemy

The beauty of this artwork draping the W Building in the busy yet artful Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Philippines draws us to have a second look, appreciate the genius play of colors and the unseen thread that connects each piece, and when we are mindful, even prompt us to ponder on question written on the wall:  


What is your culture?  


There’s so much buzz about “culture” these days.  We can dissect its anatomy : macro and micro components, the role of leadership and when culture gets defined and shaped.  


What is culture in the first place?  


At a larger scale, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines culture as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time” and “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)”. Michael D. Watkins of the Harvard Business Review defined organizational culture by citing distinctive views he picked up from LinkedIn discussion threads. [1]


“Culture is how organizations ‘do things’.” — Robbie Katanga


Indeed, organizational culture is driven by the company’s mission and vision, and core values. These tenets define the structure, process, and the general ways of working. The core values of responsibility and accountability will most likely result to a lean organization with little hierarchy, power distance, and layers. Toyota’s vision is to lead the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people. As such, Toyota has a culture of continuous improvement through learning.


As in the society, culture dictates how people think, behave, and work. In organizations where employees from diverse backgrounds come together are bound by the culture, making them move in the same direction even when there are different and unique strokes.


At a microscale, culture is composed of subculture movements that may make or break the connections that shapes culture.  


“It oversimplifies the situation in large organizations to assume there is only one culture… and it’s risky for new leaders to ignore the sub-cultures.” — Rolf Winkler


Studies show that most large organizations have a dominant culture and numerous subcultures. A dominant culture expresses the core values shared by a majority of the organization’s members. Subcultures tend to develop in large organizations to reflect common problems, situations, or experiences faced by groups of members in the same department or location. [2] A company may only reap the benefits of a strong culture if these subcultures are aligned with the dominant culture. Otherwise, it will create silos, instigate conflicts, and ultimately overturn the company’s goals.


Leadership drives the connection and alignment of the macro culture and the micro subcultures.


If and when subcultures are not aligned with the dominant culture, leadership must take the reins. As in the wise words of Dr. Franklin Covey, “Every time a leader opens his mouth, he creates a culture”. As business leaders, we must be the first and true ambassadors of our organization’s culture. Cliché as it may sound, we must walk the talk.


While we look at growth strategies, profitability, and market dominance, we need to be mindful of the anatomy of culture: the dominant and the subcultures in the workplace and how are we leading that in the way we relate with ourselves and others. Without a strong culture, no organization will sustain profitability; no organization will achieve its key results; no organization will wheedle longevity.


“Culture is the organization’s immune system.” — Michael Watkins


Adversaries will manifest the magnitude of a company’s culture. A strong culture fortifies the company from downbeat external forces. In a strong culture, the organization’s core values are both intensely held and widely shared. In 2011 one of the Red Cross’ social media employees accidentally sent a tweet (see below)—which was meant for her private Twitter account. It stayed up for about an hour before the company’s social media director was alerted and took it down. The staffer who made the mistake was not fired. Social media director Wendy Harman merely deleted the offending tweet —which had already been noted and widely retweeted—and replaced it with an amusing tweet, then followed up with a blog post. Dogfish Beer Company reposted the tweet and encouraged people to support the Red Cross, and the two companies embarked on a creative, impromptu partnership that encouraged many donations in the following days and weeks.[3]



In other organizations, the employee’s seemingly irresponsible tweet is a ground for termination. However, compassion is one of Red Cross’ core values. Firing the employee is not a consequence aligned with Red Cross’ culture. Consequently, it turned into a noble cause.


The authentic culture of an organization is tested, refined, and revealed during crisis and challenges.  An organization’s culture is the immune system that is the natural inoculation that protect us and make us respond proactively when mistakes and failures happen and help us celebrate our successes and victories with the feeling of oneness and belongingness. Let it be innovation not regression. Let it be focused on strengths not weaknesses. Let it be inclusivity not silo mentality. Let it be accountability not blame. Let it be compassion not shame. Let it be curiosity not judgment.  


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[2] Organizational Culture, Stephen P. Robbins and Timothy A. Judge, 14th edition Prentice Hall


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