Business & Management Communication & Leadership

Business culture – what is it?


I think it is fair to say that understanding the culture of a business and its people is only possible through immersion, in other words; one can’t really have an informed opinion unless one has experienced it. Of course, learning from the experience of others is what these posts are all about, therefore, they are purposely anecdotal.

The first post in this theme of blogs is about the culture that exists within a business, given from experience and my own perspective.  

What is business culture?

How often have we read or heard the words, “culture is the most important part of a business”? Very, I would suggest but stop and think about how you might define that statement when reflecting upon the business of which you are an integral part. In business we can talk of many cultures; we hear of “safety culture” or “quality culture” but these are describing attitudes toward functions within the business, fundamentally it is all about the “behaviours and beliefs characteristic within a particular social, ethnic or age group”, add to that a work group and we have the business culture.

If you are a manager of people then the culture of your team is a mirror image of you, your attitude, how you conduct yourself, the manner in which you approach your role and in basic terms, how you treat people. As a manager, you can, if needed, change the culture within your business.

In many businesses (too many, one could say) I have used the term, “we are successful in spite of our management, not because of it”. What am I saying about the culture here and more importantly, why?

I absolutely believe that management, regardless of seniority and function, is inseparable from the basic human attribute of respect and I make it a priority to treat my colleagues, co-workers, suppliers and customers with sincere respect; always. Where a disrespectful culture exists that is outside of my responsibility, then I am justified in using such a statement. My point is that varying cultures can exist within a single organisation, it is within your capacity to determine how that culture exists in your area of responsibility, whether that’s a team, a department or a site.

Here’s a personal anecdote of how the culture within one site can differ:

About 13 years ago I began a new posting in CEE (Central Eastern Europe), having spent the previous 15 years or so in various management roles in the UK. Within the industry that I was working I was technically competent and I considered myself to be a seasoned and competent manager. I approached the role with the same gusto as everything else, disregarding the fact that I was a Brit working in a foreign different could it be, anyway?

The first, cultural, difference was that people effectively bowed (yep, bowed; not quite in a Japanese kind of way but the head went down and often a hand was thrust outward) which was weird, I was referred to as Sir or Mr and never by my first name, despite my insistence and no matter what I asked to be done, the answer was always, “Yes”.

I couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this assignment was going to be easy, could I? Then, after a few days of thinking that I had reached some sort of management Nirvana, I asked a question in the daily management meeting along the line of:

“that thing that I asked for yesterday, the thing you said would be done, did it get done?”

“No, Sir”, came the reply

“oh”, I said, “why not?”, a faintly mumbled excuse came back, so I asked why I had been told it would be done and the reply came,

“because you asked for it, so we said yes”.

That was a lesson learnt the hard way; take nothing for granted as a manager of people, the culture that I was immersed in was one of deference. Almost without exception, any request that I made was accepted without question, as to do otherwise would have been deemed a failure of duty.

Unfortunately, a little while later I discovered the same department manager shouting (barking might be a better description) instructions at his subordinate in an aggressive tone. The deferential, almost sycophantic, nature in which he dealt with the site GM was not how he dealt with his team members; he was willing to give his respect, unquestionably, to someone more senior, yet was effectively a tyrant who demanded “respect” from his subordinates.

The above is a true account of my first assignment abroad and it illustrates how culture is not a catch all term for an organisation or part thereof. I must add that my experience that I write about here is not necessarily the experience I have had in other, international posts.

As a manager and a leader of people, with the right attitude and the right tools, you can have a positive influence on culture.

This post deals with the “what is business culture”, future posts will discuss and offer advice on “does the business culture need changing and if so, why?” leading on to “how to change the culture within your business or area of responsibility”.

© Andy Collinsson

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