Thinking About “Culture”

“Culture” can be a very confusing term. People use the term in so many ways. At its most empty and rhetorical, “culture” can be used as a catch-all term to express positivity, and aspiration, without people actually saying what they mean when they use the term. At its most specific, “culture” can mean the everyday details of our lives, down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat. In the spaces in between, the meaning of “culture” tends to rely heavily on the perspective of the person speaking, and on the richness of their imagination or the restrictions of their personal or political agenda.

For me, “culture” refers very simply to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. This is deliberately broad – it is important to not automatically exclude anything from our understanding of culture as a general concept. This then provides a comparative baseline, against which it is possible to make sense of the diverse meanings and rhetorics of the term. To what extent does someone’s meaning of “culture” diverge from this broad sense of it? Is a particular understanding of “culture” only limited to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in particular classes, groups, places, or artistic forms? Thinking about it all in this way can highlight prejudices, biases, exclusions, politics of distinction, elitism, and sectarianism.

To speak of “an organisational culture”, though, is to be very specific. For me, it is to speak of “what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time)“. This first and foremost invites:

  • Inclusivity: everyone in an organisation contributes to and is affected by the culture of an organisation, from the CEO to the janitors;
  • Transparency: this understanding of organisational culture leaves nowhere to hide – that’s the point;
  • Discernment: to be this inclusive calls for a deeper discernment of what is actually going on within an organisation (see the earlier post on the 8 first principles of culture change);
  • Legacy: “culture” here involves an awareness of what has happened before (our past legacies), as well as what is still to happen (our future legacies), connecting the past to the future;
  • Anticipation:  this is a future-oriented notion of culture, an invitation to awareness of our own participation in the cultural future of the organisation.

Once we ally the notion of “culture” to the discernment and evaluation of the specifics of power, effect, and circumstance it becomes helpful to speak in terms of “cultural climate”, and, by extension, “culture change”.

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