Want help in defining your organization’s culture? Here’s a starting point. 

This article is an excerpt from Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector, and is reprinted with permission.

If we want to impact an organization’s culture, we need first to define it. Again, many scholars offer a variety of ways in which to do this. I find the Cultural Web, the model created by Kevan Scholes and Gerry Johnson in 1992, to be an excellent tool. Their model looks at an organization through six lenses to define its cultural paradigm: Stories and Myths, Symbols, Power Structures, Organization Structures, Control Systems and Rituals and Routines. 



“The Cultural Web” Source: Kevan Scholes and Gerry Johnson 

When using The Cultural Web to define a specific organization’s culture, the same set of agreed-upon questions are asked across all stakeholder groups. In small organizations, it is critical to anonymize and consolidate answers. In larger organizations, it is possible to isolate groups or departments, for instance, nurses, social workers, administrators, and MDs at a hospital to determine how the culture is seen differently by different groups. Data is still anonymous, but it can be grouped.  

For example, let’s say that the ABC Association’s mission is to eradicate homelessness in North America. They are a mid-sized organization with a budget of $10 million, a staff of 30, 150 active volunteers and 14 Board members. Each organization will need unique sets of questions, however, these sample questions, adapted from Executive Coach Mikaela Kiner’s work in The Muse, are a great place to start:  

Defining an Organization’s Culture 

  1. What makes you proud to work at ABC? 
  2. How does ABC support your professional development and career growth? 
  3. Is risk-taking encouraged, and what happens when people fail or make mistakes? 
  4. What are ABC’s organizational values and how are they reflected in hiring and performance reviews? 
  5. What’s one thing you would change about ABC if you could? 
  6. What causes conflict, and how is the conflict resolved? 
  7. How would you describe “organizational politics” at ABC? 
  8. How are decisions made when there’s disagreement and stakes are high? 
  9. When and how do people like to give and receive feedback? 
  10. Titles aside, who in ABC has the power to get things done? 
  11. What are some of the ways ABC celebrates success? 
  12. How do you as a manager—or, if more appropriate, how does your manager—support and motivate your team?  
  13. What kind of flexible work arrangements do people have? 
  14. Does ABC provide you with time during your working hours to volunteer for other social profit organizations? 
  15. Do you feel a sense of belonging? What contributes to this? What takes away from this? 

Using ABC as our case study, here is what we may have discovered: 

Stories & Myths: Externally, the CEO is celebrated as a renowned social justice warrior and advocate for homelessness. Internally, the CEO is revered and feared. Externally, the organization is recognized as a thought leader and go-to source for media, researchers and clinicians for best practice as it relates to homelessness in North America. Internally, the staff are siloed, the Board is remote, and the organization is in a risky financial situation 

Rituals & Routines: There are many celebrations of milestones, holidays and successes. Potluck lunches often include food from a variety of ethnicities based on the staff at the time. The Winter Solstice is an annual celebration as is the summer season. Typically, employees arrive and leave quietly without a good morning or farewell, though the kitchen/lunchroom can be a hub of activity and interaction. There is an assumption that folks won’t clean up after themselves, so each person is assigned to a kitchen duty rotation, except the CEO who is considered too busy for this. When the Board occasionally meets on-site, food is brought in for them, but this is rarely the case for all-day staff events or long staff meetings. 

Symbols: The walls of the office are covered in quotes from famous activists and awards won by the CEO. It is considered a significant part of the communications officer’s job to apply for awards to showcase the CEO, but not for other members of the leadership or the Board/Senior Volunteers. The CEO has a large corner office as do members of the leadership team. Most of the staff work in a common area with cubicles. There is a large and lovely shared kitchen and a quiet room for relaxing. There is also a private phone room for staff who work in the common space when they need privacy for any reason. The unofficial dress code is casual, but many staff keep blazers in the office “just in case.” There is a shared library of books on a variety of social justice issues though it has not been updated in some time and some of the books are very outdated. The organization displays its values on placards around the office: collaborative, inclusive, respectful, courageous, audacious, and appreciative. 

Organizational Structure: The organization is a hierarchy with the CEO, a leadership team, VPs, Directors, Managers etc. Decisions made at every level of the organization require the final stamp of approval by the CEO. Teams are siloed. When multi-disciplinary teams come together there is often grumbling that this work is “not my job.” The Board functions in a bubble with no idea what is happening operationally as they take all of their information from a small clique that includes the CEO and several VPs or Senior Directors. The Board has never looked at data related to staff morale or turnover rates.  

Control Systems: The organization operates within strict budgetary guidelines, except when the CEO needs funds for something unbudgeted, at which point the funds will be found. Salary increases are recommended annually and never outside of the budgeting process. All hires must be approved by the CEO. Performance reviews are old school and irrelevant with little connection to the organization’s strategic plan. The HR function is handled off the side of a VP’s desk and there is no mechanism for managing conflict or for generative discussion within the organization. There is no policy related to whistle-blowing or a large number of other necessary systems within the HR and safe workplace functions.  

Power Structures: The power structures are confused. In theory, this organization believes in community-based decision-making and a radical listening culture as part of major decisions. However, in practice, the power structures, both formal and informal, are clearly top-down. Decisions are made quickly and often without all of the players at the table. The expectation to meet critical funding targets, at any cost, is expressed consistently and by many who have no experience in this domain. Those who work “in the program” and therefore are considered the thought leaders on homelessness have lots of informal and formal power. The CEO holds all the cards and gathers close to them advisors who align with their approach.  

What is the culture paradigm?  

It is the intersection of all these elements and, depending upon the way in which the data is gathered, it may represent the dominant, but not the only, organizational culture that exists. This is particularly obvious in highly siloed organizations where the sub-culture can vary drastically from one team to another. In some client engagements, the next step may be to name the cultural paradigm. After presenting the results of the organization’s cultural audit, and through a facilitated conversation with the leadership teams, you create a phrase or title that captures the current cultural paradigm.  

For example, based on the information presented for ABC, the paradigm might be something like “There’s no place like home.” The next step, using tools like the Emotional Culture Deck designed by organizational behaviour consultant Jeremy Dean, could be an exercise that identifies how the team wants staff to “feel” at work and what behaviours need to occur or to stop occurring, for this to emerge.  

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of CharityVillage. 

Maryann Kerr is Chief Happiness Officer, CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group. Maryann is a governance, leadership and culture specialist, has worked in the social profit sector for 34 years and helped raise over $110M.  She is an Associate with Global Philanthropic Canada. Maryann is a sector leader with a passion for social justice, feminism, and continuous learning.  

Maryann’s first book was published by Civil Sector Press in 2021: Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector. Maryann earned her CFRE in 1997 and her master’s in organizational leadership in 2016. She is currently exploring opportunities for a Ph.D. or perhaps a second book.