Deciphering Organizational Culture

main.jpgOne of my first internships in college was working for a small nonprofit. I loved the work, but something felt a little…off. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it me? Was it my supervisor? The atmosphere felt disconnected, staff sometimes didn’t get along, and I couldn’t figure out basic norms and procedures—heck, I couldn't even tell you the dress code. What was wrong, I came to find out, was poor organizational culture.

What is it? Organizational culture, whether good or bad, is a difficult concept to comprehend. It's a mixture of written and unwritten values, norms, beliefs and practices shared by the people who make up your organization. More simply put, it’s the “personality” of your nonprofit.

Either way, it's a powerful force that dictates everything from how well you fulfill your mission to who makes the coffee in the morning.

Put on your anthropologist hat…

As emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector, it’s important for us to be aware of organizational culture. This is true in our current positions or when job searching. When trying to define your current or preferred culture, ask yourself this:

  1. What types of interactions do you and your fellow colleagues have? (Watch for communication styles, key messages, body language, and management styles).
  2. What is valued? (Check for emotions).
  3. What is not valued? (Anything missing in your conversations, interactions and tasks?)
  4. What is the physical environment like? (Think: cubicles vs. open spaces, common areas and office décor) 

If your organizational culture is good…

When organizational culture is good, generally, you know it. In the case of nonprofits, so do your donors, volunteers and clients. While every workplace is different, chances are you have strong leadership, colleagues who really believe in your mission, and you feel respected and recognized for your work. Make steps to continue this culture by being mindful of your interactions with your coworkers, keeping your mind on the mission, and helping newcomers merge into the work environment.

But if your organizational culture is not so hot...

Attempting to improve your organization’s culture can be a daunting task. This can be especially true if you're a young professional and perhaps feeling a bit low on the totem pole. However, nonprofit blogger, Rosetta Thurman challenges this notion, stating, “If not us, then who?”

You’re probably thinking, “How can I possibly tackle such huge issues as generational tension, poor leadership or diversity?” The good thing is you don’t have to; you just have to start the conversation.

At the August Emerging Leaders Network Lunch, your fellow YNPers came up with a few ideas as to how you can get the culture improvement ball rolling.

  1. Find a champion. Organizational culture is a difficult concept, so don't go at it alone. Identify a colleague who is going to be an advocate. This is someone you feel comfortable with, who respects you, and has supported you in the past.
  2. Broach the subject. It's up to you to initiate the conversation with your champion, but how you start it will determine your success. Be objective, respectful and self-aware. Always try to do things face-to-face, and be sure to clarify why you're approaching them.
  3. Make a plan. Listen to what your champion has to say—How do they feel? What would be the best way to go about talking to leadership? Formulate a plan and articulate your ideas for approaching leadership.
  4. Determine values.  At its root, organizational culture is all about values. Frame the discussion with your organization's leadership—this can be your department leads or just your direct report—as an open conversation about your shared values, both spoken and unspoken. 
  5. Live it. Once you and leadership have deciphered or reached an understanding on what the organizational values should be, you need to live up to them. Lead by example. Ideally, your organization should also respond by improving communication structures, work systems, training programs, and recognition practices.

You have the power to change organizational culture, because you are nonprofit culture.

I would like to know your comments on organizational culture. How would you define it at your organization? Is it good, why or why not? What ways have you attempted to improve your organization's culture?

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