Understanding and Shaping Organizational Culture – Internal Communication’s Key Role

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ management consultant Peter Drucker once said – and we definitely think this can be true. Companies disconnecting the two may be risking their success. However, while the majority of organizations spend lots of time and effort developing strategies and plans, the way people will work to deliver these can quickly be overlooked – resulting in a misalignment between strategy and the culture required to deliver the desired results. But if there are people in your organization, there will be a culture of some nature. Shaping your desired organizational culture is an ongoing process that requires constant effort, and internal communication will play a key role in every part of the process.

Organizational culture: a definition

We think of organizational culture as the ‘social glue’ within an organization. It is the collection of beliefs, values, norms, and methods of interaction that create an organization’s environment and make up an organization’s personality. Leading culture academic Edgar Schein defines culture simply as ‘how an organization organizes itself internally’. Additionally, he provides a more in-depth description, defining culture as ‘the sum total of everything an organization has learned in its history in dealing with the external problems – which would be goals and strategy’. In other words: ‘The way things are done around here’.

The Cultural Iceberg Model

According to American anthropologist Edward Hall, organizational culture (in whatever form) comes about at three different levels. These levels are often displayed in the metaphor of an iceberg. Hall developed the Cultural Iceberg Model in the 1970s as an analogy for the cultural codes that prevail in any society, but it’s still applicable today. The model is inspired by the icebergs found in polar seas: they have visible parts above the water’s surface, but up to 90% of an iceberg’s actual mass remains hidden underwater. Hall’s iceberg levels indicate what factors of organizational culture are above and below the ‘surface’ – or what can and cannot be observed.

Level one lies above the surface: the ‘artifacts’ or the visible part of your organization’s culture. This part can be noticed, but not necessarily understood, by a visitor or ‘outsider’ in the form of (among other things) physical artifacts such as a building’s interior, office design and decoration, manner of dressing, and technology, as well as your organization’s own language, visible traditions, social practices, and even office jokes.

Level two and three lies below the surface – they’re less visible and prominent.

Level two, the ‘espoused values’, are what an organization says it stands for and claims to value, such as published organizational values or a mission. These are stated goals, and they reflect the members’ shared opinion on ‘how things should be’. They can be the ‘public relation face’ of the organization, though it does not always match the reality.

Level three, the ‘basic assumptions’, are your employees’ core beliefs. They can heavily influence how people act and interact, although they are not always conscious assumptions. A basic assumption is a kind of belief that is taken for granted as a fact, and so it is never challenged, e.g., ‘it is best to speak up when I have a good idea’. A pattern of these evolves among the members of a social group such as an organization and makes up the core of the culture.

If we keep in mind Hall’s iceberg model, organizational culture can feel intangible, and in some ways, it is. Internal communication is an instrument that helps to expose your organizational culture’s intangible factors. Its key role regarding organizational culture displays itself in two important processes: understanding organizational culture and shaping organizational culture.

Understanding organizational culture

Organizational culture is something personal, and new hires or even existing employees might have trouble in discerning it and going beyond the artifact level of culture – its visible layer. Internal communication plays a key role in exposing the impalpable factors of organizational cultures, such as thoughts, values, and beliefs. Effective internal communications will bring your company values and assumptions above the surface. It provides insight into cultural settings and enables a better understanding of the organization, helping your employees align your company values and culture. Higher levels of alignment will result in a behavior pattern of high performance and positive assertiveness – and who wouldn’t want that?

Shaping organizational culture

While internal communication helps you make the espoused values of your organization tangible, your communication channels are also a helpful tool to shape your organizational culture. Communicating about your values and assumptions will, for example, instill a culture of transparency, which creates an environment that leaves employees feeling valued. Transparency nurtures a type of comfort that allows employees to communicate effectively and thus progress. As a result, it will instill the basic assumption that honesty is the best policy.

The basic assumptions in your organization dictate your espoused values and artifacts. However, your basic assumptions can also be affected by your espoused values, and your artifacts will have to be adjusted accordingly. Your culture iceberg’s levels are all interlaced and interact with each other. Internal communication will function as the thread that exposes them all.

Do you want to deploy your internal communication channels to bring the hidden layers of your organizational culture to the light? We are always excited to help you understand or shape your organizational culture. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with our consultants!

About the author

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Bente Pieters

Bente is, besides a language purist, a communication wizard. She knows all internal communication ins and outs and likes to share these in impeccable language. In her spare time, you can find her at the gym or reading books at home.