Cultural Artifacts

Dig a little to discover big value for your organization

“The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.”
– Edgar Schein

When was the last time you were on the phone with a customer service representative who went out of their way to help solve your problem? Or walked you through the grocery store to help you find exactly what you were looking for?  Perhaps you called a customer service line and received minimal (if any) help, and felt angrier after the call than before? Customer service and the feelings we are left with after our interactions are just one way cultural artifacts can be experienced. Some artifacts are immediately evident in our interactions with members of a company, while others may be hidden within the organization and take time and effort to discover.

So, what are cultural artifacts and why do they matter?  

According to a recent report from the National Center for the Middle Market, “More than 75% of companies experiencing M&A report significant challenges with integrating culture.  Among companies that have made direct attempts to alter culture, only about a third say the effort was extremely successful.” Culture exists all around you and reflects your organization’s reason-for-being.   Culture helps others know who you are, what you stand for, and how you operate, even if you haven’t purposefully designed it. You create and recreate your organization’s culture every single day. It is evidenced in your mission, vision, and values – which are what we most often associate with the idea of corporate culture, but it is most recognizable in the artifacts of day-to-day organizational life.

Artifacts are man-made objects that have some kind of cultural significance. Artifacts are relatively unique to your organization and can make post-closing M&A integration difficult.  Work-related artifacts include your organization’s processes, policies, and procedures, expected behaviors, the technologies you use to get your work done, your daily interactions, and the physical environments where your work is done. Your culture is made up of these artifacts.

As you begin to assess and align your culture it is typical to focus on the following elements:

  • Ongoing training of company employees
  • Clearly stated set of core values
  • Team building exercises
  • Public recognition of individual achievements
  • Use of compensation and bonuses to reward [the] behavior we want
  • Onboarding program that includes [the] story of [our] company’s founding
  • Community outreach and volunteerism
  • Making specific changes in management behavior
  • Making culture a major element of promotion decisions

Adapted from:  High-Performance Culture: How Middle Market Executives View & Harness the Power of Culture (March 2019, National Center for the Middle Market)

These elements of culture are critical; yet we suggest taking a broader view.  Consider for example, the ways in which you address each other, conduct yourselves in meetings, your tone of voice on the telephone, and your interactions in the lunchroom.  Language is an incredibly important and telling cultural artifact.

I was once invited to spend an afternoon with the Executive Vice President of Talent for a global organization headquartered in the northeastern United States. The company is a pioneer in leadership development and a magnate organization for graduating some of the most capable and well-respected executives in the world.  Within the first 10 minutes of my conversation with this highly-regarded leader I had heard more 4-letter words than I heard in a year with my own employer. I was stunned! – enough, that I still share my amazement with people, more than a dozen years later. Their ordinary interactions were peppered with this colorful language, it was a deeply embedded (and expected) aspect of their culture, demonstrated through the way they spoke.

Language as a cultural artifact is more than just the words you use.  Your words have meanings-in-use, or working definitions, which are specific to your organization.  These meanings are critical, especially as you create, evolve or combine cultures (which often happens following an acquisition).  To illustrate this point, let’s use the word ‘family’, as in, “Our Company treats every employee like family.” If you were to poll your employees asking them to describe what the word ‘family’ means to them you might get the following responses:

  • Family means home, my parents’ support, warm meals around the table with my siblings and cousins, weekend sporting events, unconditional love and regard.
  • Family means hard work, making sacrifices to meet everyone’s needs, long hours of work from an early age, never having privacy.
  • Family means pain, loss of a parent, being alone, being hungry and cold, suffering.    

Which kind of ‘family’ do you mean when you use this word to describe your organization?  As you ask your current and future employees to act like and treat each other as family members, how do you expect them to behave?  How do you communicate your behavioral expectations and values definitions to your team? Language is one set of cultural artifacts and can be a lens through which you explore, “What is the environment I intend to create?”  

Cultures live on a continuum that stretches from being unintentional, or haphazard, to highly intentional.  Regardless of where your culture exists on this continuum, it is being built and reinforced every moment of every day.   Do you have policies and procedures? If you have them, are they being followed or disregarded? Is your business technology focused but you’re still using paper-based record keeping process?  Do you entice new hires by sharing your flexible workplace policy and empower them to work offsite, or require them to be in the office to receive important communications? Have you acquired multiple new organizations and continue to use multiple, similar technology solutions, without a plan for systems integration?

Carefully attend to your artifacts!  When you look around, do the ‘man-made articles of cultural significance’ reinforce the work environment, behaviors, and outcomes you truly desire and communicate to your people, or are they in conflict with the strong, vibrant, valuable organization you intend to create?

Reach out to us!  We look forward to helping you address a challenge or opportunity where your unique cultural artifacts can be used to add enterprise value.

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