Deciphering an Organization’s Culture - Principles of Management

We can’t directly see an organization’s shared values and assumptions. Instead, as Figure below illustrated earlier, organizational culture needs to be deciphered through artifacts. Artifacts are the observable symbols and signs of an organization’s culture, such as the way visitors are greeted, the physical layout, and how employees are rewarded. Some experts suggest that artifacts are the essence of corporate culture, whereas others view artifacts as symbols or indicators of culture.

Either way, artifacts are important because they represent the best source of information about a company’s culture. Discovering an organization’s culture is much like an anthropological investigation of a new society. It involves observing workplace behavior, listening for unique language in everyday conversations, studying written documents, and interviewing staff about corporate stories. As we will learn later, artifacts are also important because they reinforce and potentially support changes to an organization’s culture.

The Mayo Clinic recognized the importance of deciphering its organizational culture through artifacts. The medical center has a well-established culture at its original clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, but maintaining that culture in its expanding operations in Florida and Arizona has been challenging. “We were struggling with growing pains [and] we didn’t want to lose the culture, [so] we were looking at how to keep the heritage alive,” explains Matt McElrath, Mayo Clinic human resources director in Arizona.

The Mayo Clinic retained anthropologist Linda Catlin to decipher Mayo’s culture and identify ways to reinforce it at the two newer sites. Catlin shadowed employees and posed as a patient to observe what happens in waiting rooms. “She did countless interviews, joined physicians on patient visits, and even spent time in the operating room,” says McElrath. At the end of her six-week cultural expedition, Catlin submitted a report outlining Mayo’s culture and how its satellite operations varied from that culture. The Mayo Clinic adopted all of Catlin’s 11 recommendations, such as requiring all new physicians at the three sites to attend an orientation in Rochester where they learn about Mayo’s history and values.

Kevin Rollins hadn’t conducted a full anthropological expedition when he concluded that Dell’s culture was amiss, but he did use artifacts to identify some cultural content. Rollins noticed that employees talked about the company’s stock value more often than do people in other firms. He observed that many employees used a stock market ticker as a screen saver on their computer monitors. And when the stock price crashed from $58 to $16 per share, Rollins saw the effect on morale and turnover intentions.

After this initial diagnosis, Dell engaged a consulting firm to more formally analyze the company’s culture. The process, consisting of a lengthy questionnaire completed by all employees, confirmed that Dell has a culture that values winning and operational excellence (efficiency and speed). The results also confirmed Rollins’s worry that Dell’s relentless pursuit of growth and efficiency was sometimes hurting employee well-being.

“[The] surveys showed that certain sales leaders were routinely rewarded and promoted despite trampling on the feelings of their team members,” recalls Michael George, Dell’s chief marketing officer. “New hires complained that they had been thrown into the most challenging position of their lives with little support or backup from superiors.”

Surveys can reveal some information about a company’s culture, but managers should not rely on that information alone to understand the company’s culture. Several organizational culture experts have warned that culture is too deep and there are too many varieties of cultural values to be adequately captured in a pencil-and-paper questionnaire. Instead they recommend a combination of surveys and painstaking assessment of many artifacts. Four broad categories of artifacts are organizational stories and legends, rituals and ceremonies, language, and physical structures and symbols.


Many years ago Southwest Airlines introduced an ad campaign with the phrase “Just Plane Smart.” Unknowingly the Dallas-based airline had infringed on the “Plane Smart” slogan at Stevens Aviation, an aviation sales and maintenance company in Greensville, South Carolina. Rather than paying buckets of money to lawyers, Stevens chairman Kurt Herwald and Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher decided to settle the dispute with an old-fashioned arm-wrestling match at a run-down wrestling stadium in Dallas.

A boisterous crowd watched the “Malice in Dallas” event as “Smokin” Herb Kelleher and “Kurtsey” Herwald battled their designates and then each other. When Kelleher lost the final round to Herwald, he jested (while being carried off on a stretcher) that his defeat was due to a cold and the strain of walking up a flight of stairs. Stevens Aviation later decided to let Southwest Airlines continue to use its ad campaign, and both companies donated funds from the event to charities.

Malice in Dallas is a legend that almost every Southwest employee knows by heart. It is a tale that communicates one of the maverick airline’s core values—that having fun is part of doing business. Stories and legends about past corporate incidents serve as powerful social prescriptions of the way things should (or should not) be done. They also provide human realism to corporate expectations, individual performance standards, and assumptions about ideal behaviors and decisions.

Not all stories and legends are positive. Some are communicated to demonstrate what is wrong with the dominant corporate culture. Some time ago General Motors (GM) was known for its strong hierarchical culture, in which employees were expected to respect the position and power of their higher-ups. Employees who rejected the automaker’s dominant culture liked to tell how dozens of GM people would arrive at the airport to meet a senior executive.

An executive’s status was symbolized by the number of vehicles leaving the airport with the executive; but critics told this story to illustrate the decadence and time wasted in serving GM’s leaders rather than other stakeholders.

Stories are important artifacts because they personalize the culture and generate emotions that help people remember lessons within these stories. Stories have the greatest effect at communicating corporate culture when they describe real people, are assumed to be true, and are remembered by employees throughout the organization. Stories are also prescriptive—they advise people what to do or not to do.


Rituals are the programmed routines of daily organizational life that dramatize an organization’s culture. They include how visitors are greeted, how often senior executives visit subordinates, how people communicate with each other, how much time employees take for lunch, and so on. BMW is well known for its fast-paced culture, which is soon apparent quite literally in how quickly employees walk around the German carmaker’s offices.

“When you move through the corridors and hallways of other companies’ buildings, people kind of crawl—they walk slowly,” says BMW board of management chair Helmut Panke. “But BMW people tend to move faster.” Ceremonies are more formal artifacts than rituals. Ceremonies are planned activities conducted specifically for the benefit of an audience, such as publicly rewarding (or punishing) employees or celebrating the launch of a new product or newly won contract.


The language of the workplace speaks volumes about the company’s culture. How employees address coworkers, describe customers, express anger, and greet stakeholders are all verbal symbols of cultural values. Employees at The Container Store compliment each other about “being Gumby,” meaning that they are being as flexible as the well-known green toy—going outside their regular jobs to help a customer or another employee.

(A human-sized Gumby is displayed at the retailer’s headquarters.) Language also highlights values held by organizational subcultures. For instance, consultants working at Whirlpool kept hearing employees talk about the appliance company’s “PowerPoint culture.” This phrase, which names Microsoft’s presentation software, is a critique of Whirlpool’s hierarchical culture in which communication is one-way (from executives to employees).


The size, shape, location, and age of buildings might suggest the company’s emphasis on teamwork, environmental friendliness, flexibility, or any other set of values. An extreme example is the “interplanetary headquarters” of Oakley Inc. The ultra-hip eyewear and clothing company built a vaultlike structure in Foothill Ranch, California, complete with towering metallic walls studded with oversize bolts, to represent its secretive and protective culture.

Ejection seats from a B-52 bomber furnish the waiting area. A full-size torpedo lies in a rack behind the receptionist’s armored desk. Overall, the building symbolizes a highly protective culture in which employees believe they are at war with the competition. “We’ve always had a fortress mentality,” says an Oakley executive. “What we make is gold, and people will do anything to get it, so we protect it.”

Even if the building doesn’t make much of a statement, there is a treasure trove of physical artifacts inside. Desks, chairs, office space, and wall hangings (or lack of them) are just a few of the items that might convey cultural meaning. Each of these artifacts alone might not say much, but enough of them together make the company’s culture easier to decipher. Consider Chandler Chicco Agency’s (CCA’s) offices in Manhattan’s meatpacking district.

The creative advertising agency is a cubicle-free and status-free zone. Desks are arranged in clusters where senior staffers share the same space and similar responsibilities as those who joined the company a week ago.

These artifacts suggest that CCA has an egalitarian and possibly frugal culture.

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