The one thing that’s clear about culture is that culture isn’t clear.

In a 1998 article, Willem Verbeke, Marco Volgering and Marco Hessels identified 54 different definitions of the concept of organisational culture in articles and books between 1960 and 1993. Think of how many more could be added if we include the age of the internet.

What we do know is that, while a universal understanding of culture does not necessarily exist, there are some common themes that connect how people define culture.

In this short series, we’re looking at these four key elements to help us better understand what culture is so we can know what we can do about it.

The first is that culture has a collective element.

In many definitions of culture, you will find people use words like ‘shared’, ‘norms’, ‘members’, ‘organisation’ and ‘assumptions’. These words point to the idea that culture is collective, not individual, and that it is through culture that we are able to arrive at some sense of group identity.

You don’t have a culture. I don’t have a culture. But together we have culture.

Culture is a shared experience.

This is important to understand because:

  1. It shifts the focus

For most of our early careers, we tend to be very self-oriented. We typically consider culture through the lens of ‘me’. How do ‘I’ do things here? How do I fit on this team? How does my behaviour influence me? How does my performance influence me?

It is a sobering new reality that it is no longer just about you. As a leader, we have a responsibility now to the collective. This means considering how ‘we’ now do things as a team. How do ‘we’ communicate as a team? How do ‘we’ engage as a team? How do ‘we’ confront behaviours or manage conflict as a team? What and how do ‘we’ celebrate here?

Recognising that culture has a collective element will force us to shift the focus. Think of it like switching the camera from the front to the rear camera (from selfies to the inclusion of others).

  1. It opens the conversation

Culture requires the buy-in of everybody to become the norms of the group. If you want your people to buy into the culture, you need to include them in the conversation. When we recognise that culture has a collective element, it prompts us to open the conversation and invite the right voices.

If culture is collective, the conversation should be too.

Here’s a question to reflect on this week
“What voices are missing in this culture conversation?”