This article is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.
Perusing the top ten of Ad Age’s 2017 agency list, there is one common theme in how advertising agencies describe their company culture: collaborative. There are plenty of supporting words that carefully surround “collaborative,” such as passion, insightful, supportive, entrepreneurial, borderless, and unafraid, but you would be correct in arguing that these descriptors are more relevant to the people these companies hope (will) work for them, rather than being indicative of a culture itself. Culture statements, which tend to reside on About Us and Career pages online, sit comfortably under the recruitment banner. In our current pursuit of work/life balance, a company’s culture is of particular interest to potential job seekers, and companies are quick to tout benefits as culture (e.g., beer brewed on site that celebrates the likes and heritage of employees, the company, and clients or catered dinners). But do these elements really add up to a organizational culture? What does culture actually mean? Can culture be anything more than a buzzword for businesses?
Well, what is culture anyway?
There are many, many factors that influence the formation of culture. Edward Burnett Tylor, the founder of cultural anthropology, defined culture as the complete whole, including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a person as a member of society. Culture is manifested in the social fabric that governs our interactions with each other; it is bound in the roles that we occupy and how we interact with each other; and it grows and adapts to the accepted norms of the time. It is the food we eat and how we acquire the ingredients; the language(s) we speak and how we teach our children to read and write; it is the clothes we wear, when we wear them, and how those clothes are crafted. It is the expectations we have of our policemen, firemen, nurses, teachers, crossing guards, bartenders, doormen, and garbage men. It can be subdivided to create distinct pockets. We call these pockets subcultures—businesses, if they have a culture, may have a subculture (and it should not be assumed that they do have a culture)—but they ultimately answer to the mainstream cultural ethos.
How does culture work in an organization?
In Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, the authors establish a classification of workplaces based on the relationship between business risks and feedback:
- Process Culture: These environments generally have a hierarchy, which can be easily assessed from something as simple as office furniture—when someone gets promoted in this context, you can easily tell based on their desk chair. People dress in ways that reflect and coordinate their rank. This is a low risk, low feedback environment; there is unlikely to be a major business shakeup based on actions taken by the governing body, and employee evaluations are generally tied to the review period. This type of culture has been tied to insurance, medicine, and finance.
- Tough Guy/Macho Culture: Individual employees take high risks and get quick feedback on their actions. There is an all-or-nothing mentality. Positivity abounds—tough guys must believe they can be successful, despite the odds or the risks involved. This type of culture is linked to advertising, movie making and professional sports.
- Work Hard/Play Hard Culture retains quick feedback, but minimizes risk. It is characteristic of sales-based organizations.
- The Bet Your Company Culture is high risk with slow feedback. Rather than being tied to particular industries, the authors linked this culture-type to specific businesses: Boeing, Caterpillar, and Exxon. (Draw from that what conclusion you will.)
While organizational culture is certainly more nuanced than these classifications, by orienting the discussion around these types we have a basis from which to discuss the idea of corporate culture. Looking at these groupings, it's understandable why this isn't the way organizations describe themselves on their About Us or Careers pages, particularly in advertising where the company goals are structured around telling convincing stories. Would you want to work for a "process-oriented company" or one that "works hard and plays hard"? These aren't ways that organizations themselves talk about themselves and certainly not the way they would conceive of selling themselves to clients or prospective employees. However, these types are useful in understanding some key tenets concerning culture.
First, each of these types are segments of a whole. While they are contained within themselves, for a company to be successful, they are all needed to some degree. A process-oriented team may help keep contracts in order and maintain legal fitness of the organization, but the company needs the work hard/play hard team to help pursue sales. So, none of these types are indicative of organizational culture overall, but they give us foundation from which we can understand how these groupings arise.
Second, all organizational cultures are founded in an established mission for the company. This represents the public facing goal that the company asks all employees to work toward. The effort that employees contribute to this goal and the ways in which the company encourages and supports them in those efforts represents the organization's culture. This effort from the people is characterized by the relationships that exist between individuals. For this reason, transparency and hierarchy are actually very important in determining the type of culture people believe they belong to.
Anthropologist Victor Turner wrote of a common purpose or human bond that is the foundation for the communities we belong to. This idea of communitas is distinct from the structured economic, political, and judicial systems that govern social life. It connects the unstructured elements of the social order and can be described as the dialectic processes where the social order negotiates itself—those states of shifting, rebalancing, and reordering. In these moments before established structures assert themselves, actions, behaviors, and relationships are governed by communitas—the connections we have with each other. It is a more intimate connection than simply belonging to a community. It in the negotiation of self within that community and in larger contexts. If we use Turner’s concept of communitas, we have a means of understanding the connections that can form within workplaces.
For industrialized societies, belonging to a collectively defined occupational category becomes a marker for identity both within the workplace and beyond. For example, if you introduce yourself as an art director or account manager or project manager or a physicist or a doctor, you are telling people about yourself. Your work title contributes to your personhood. By sharing this information, you’re potentially sharing personal traits as well as education level as well as how you see yourself, and in return people are crafting ideas about what these items mean and what they should expect from you.
Within an organization, these titles place you within a hierarchy, which further reinforces your role and responsibilities. It enhances your identity within this context, and moves you closer to people who are like you, and with whom you will share common goals. The role of an art director, for example, is formed both by the organization and the people who occupy the role. The parameters are set by the organization for the role but the people who occupy the role shape what it means to each other and to the organization.
So if you belong to a creative department, you may be governed by particular ways of working that differs from a project management department or a finance department or a sales team. Additionally, this difference will extend from organization to organization in accordance with company goals and the people in that group. Teams are often blended in terms of roles and function in collaborative ways. And it is true that in these mixed groups, individuals function as a representative for their department, but within their departments a strong sense of communitas can help enhance the individual sense of self. The more spontaneously equal people become, the more distinctly they know themselves. In an environment where parameters are clearly established for growth and development and people understand how they can advance, there is greater focus on helping the team grow and helping the team to support organizational goals. This is important because while the company's public facing goals matter, people are constantly negotiating their identity in terms of broader social norms, which mark and measure personal milestones.
So free beer, catered lunches and an open floor plan aren't culture?
No. These are benefits. (Except for open floor plans—those are just bad news.) Some people, when speaking about their workplace, may say that their colleagues are like family. This is common to teams that have worked together for an extended period of time, for small departments with some degree of longevity, and for smaller companies. (Start-up environments are perfect for this type of relationship.) This feeling of closeness is born out of a shared sense of communitas, and bolstered by small, common rituals that are only possible in smaller groups. Morning coffee, for example, or communal lunches (meaning, people eat together at a common table rather than at their desks), or the practice of small, stand-up meetings. These are cultural markers.
And the best cultural markers are those that aren't imposed on employees—mandatory game night or spin classes!—but are those that are formulated by employees. These create a shared sense of continuity, which creates the foundations for trust and support and strengthens the bonds between people. Organizational culture is rooted in the ways companies encourage these organic interactions but also in how they support their employees themselves. For example, across industries I've had older colleagues call out the shift in working accommodations now that so many of their younger colleagues have become parents and require additional flex time. Culture is larger than organizational objectives. A company that isn't continually evolving cannot hope to provide employees with the tools to create rituals that foster communitas, which in turn bolster company goals.
Well, then, what is culture?
Whether they intend it or not, one of the things that the culture statements convey is an idea of sameness. A shared experience does not equate to unity. Solidarity is produced by people acting together toward a goal but this goal does not need to be shared, meaning that it's possible that someone is participating in the group to gain a promotion and help create deliverables and help support sales. Personal goals and business goals are not necessarily intertwined. People may align themselves with company objectives simply because they need a job, and not because they have whole-heartedly bought into the company mission statement. And that’s okay. Culture is used by people to achieve goals. It can bring people together in collaborative settings but it can also push people apart as differentials in power trigger broader social norms.
Organizational culture may be led by orientation toward process or macho guys or by working hard and playing hard, but these are traits. Organizational culture sits at the intersection of the the relationship that the organization has with the communitas within it, and subsequently with the people of that organization. Much in the same way communitas is builds trusts and connectivity and productivity, organizations should be working to extend this to their employees as well. Communicating transparently, investing in employees, and rewarding loyalty is the foundation for organizational culture. It’s not something to be named with a flashy buzzword but something that holds employees when the flashy trappings of benefits are gone. When a company describes itself as having a "collaborative" culture, what they are actually saying is that they have a strong sense of communitas.
What does culture look like in your workplace? Is it defined by perks or structured around the changing needs of employees to be successful? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Deal, Terry and Allan Kennedy (2000). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Basic Books.
Letkemann, Paul (2002). The Office Workplae: Communitas and Hierarchical Social Structures. Canadian Anthropological Society, 44(2): 257-269.
Nelson, Hal (1983). Review of Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Society of Applied Anthropology 42(4): 368-370.
Wilhelm, Warren (1992). Changing Corporate Culture Or Corporate Behavior? How to Change Your Company? The Executive, 6(4): 72-77.