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Organizational culture is the collection of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all team members within an organization.

It is a complex and multifaceted concept that has been studied from many perspectives and disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, organizational behavior, and organizational leadership.

In this article, we will explore the different interpretations of culture and how they apply to organizational culture, as well as discuss the symptoms of different types of organizational cultures.

Different Interpretations of Culture

  1. Shared values and beliefs: Culture can be seen as the shared values, beliefs, and practices that shape the behavior of individuals within a group or organization. This interpretation emphasizes the collective aspect of culture and how it influences people’s actions and decisions.
  2. Acquired knowledge: Anthropologist James Spradley defines culture as “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior”. This definition highlights the role of learning and socialization in shaping culture.
  3. Symbolic structures: Culture can also be understood as a system of symbols and meanings that are constantly in flux and interact with one another. This perspective emphasizes the role of language, rituals, and other symbolic elements in defining culture.
  4. Collective set of beliefs, behaviors, and practices: Another interpretation of culture is that it is a collective set of beliefs, behaviors, ideas, philosophies, and practices shared by groups of people. This definition encompasses both the tangible and intangible aspects of culture.
  5. Patterns of learned and shared behavior: Culture can be defined as patterns of learned and shared behavior that are cumulative and transmitted across generations. This definition highlights the dynamic nature of culture and its ability to evolve over time. (This is my prefered way of defining culture.)

Symptoms of Organizational Culture

To identify the culture of an organization, you can look for certain symptoms that reveal its underlying values and beliefs. Here are some symptoms related to fear, bureaucracy, and risk aversion:


A fear-based workplace is characterized by anxiety, lack of trust, and a focus on self-preservation. Some signs of a fear-based culture include:

  • Employees are focused on daily goals and avoiding mistakes, rather than collaboration and innovation.
  • Managers and HR personnel prioritize assigning work, measuring results, and maintaining order over listening to employees and problem-solving.
  • Employees feel insecure about their job stability and are constantly worried about unwanted consequences, such as job loss.


A bureaucratic culture is marked by an emphasis on rules, regulations, and formal organizational structures. Some symptoms of a bureaucratic culture include:

  • Extensive written work rules and procedures.
  • Multiple layers of management and slow decision-making processes.
  • A focus on following rules and avoiding blame, rather than collaboration, experimentation, and innovation.

Risk Aversion

A risk-averse culture is one where organizations are reluctant to embrace change and innovation due to the fear of potential negative outcomes. Some signs of a risk-averse culture include:

  • Few to no new ideas being generated or implemented.
  • Managers rejecting innovative proposals in favor of safe investments and cost-cutting measures.
  • A lack of cross-functional collaboration and bureaucracy hindering innovation.

These are some of the important symptoms. By recognizing symptoms, you can better understand the culture of an organization and take steps to address any issues that may be hindering its growth and success.

Impact of Organizational Culture

Organizational culture can have a significant impact on the performance and success of an organization. A positive and healthy culture can lead to increased employee engagement, productivity, and innovation, while a negative and toxic culture can lead to high turnover rates, low morale, and poor performance.Culture affects all aspects of a business, from punctuality and tone to contract terms and employee benefits.When workplace culture aligns with employees, they’re more likely to feel comfortable, supported, and valued. Companies that prioritize culture can also weather difficult times and changes in the business environment and come out stronger.


Organizational culture is a complex and multifaceted concept that influences the behavior of individuals within an organization. By understanding the different interpretations of culture and the symptoms of different types of organizational cultures, organizations can take steps to create a positive and healthy work environment that fosters collaboration, innovation, and growth.


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