Culture: Weak vs. Strong

April 20, 2021

There are four components to an organization's culture: Beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals. The degree to which these components are present or absent determine the strength or weakness of a culture. The strength of any culture comes from the degree of agreement among its people about the importance of specific beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals. These are the things in a culture that determine how things get done.

Weak Culture

A culture is weak when its beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals are not apparent to its members or there is incongruence between stated values and behavior. This can happen for a variety of reasons. With no knowledge of what the organization stands for or how things are actually done (rather than how policy indicates things should be done), weak cultures work against the success of an organization.

Strong Culture

A culture is considered strong when there is cohesion around beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals. Strong cultures typically feature their beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals in public displays so that employees can use these cultural elements for decision making throughout the organization. Strong cultures include:

  • More than one strong leader who articulates beliefs, behavioral rules, traditions, and rituals that are aligned with customer needs, strategic direction, and competitive environments.
  • Organizational commitment to operating its business as directed by the culture.
  • Unfaltering commitment by the organization to support its key stakeholders -- business partners, suppliers, employees, customers, and shareholders (if any) -- and by extension the community, society, and environment.

Characteristics of a Weak Culture

In comparison, weak cultures often produce low performance. Weak cultures also have several unhealthy characteristics that can serve as obstacles to an organization’s ability to meet its goals and achieve success. These characteristics are:

1. Narrow/Isolated Thinking: This characteristic is evident when an organization avoids looking outside itself for best practices and approaches. People in these organizations believe they have all the answers. It is this type of inward thinking that can prevent an organization from making necessary procedural and cultural changes.

2. Resistance to Change: This characteristic is evident when an organization is suddenly confronted with a rapidly changing environment. The organization focuses on maintaining the status quo, avoiding risk, and not making mistakes. It is the leadership in the culture that allows these factors to pervade and paralyze the organization rather than focusing on innovation and success.

3. Political Internal Environment: In a politically charged culture, issues and problems get resolved along the lines of power. Vocal support or opposition, personal lobbying, and the formation of coalitions interested in a particular outcome stifles change. This type of internal environment produces low performance because it sacrifices what is best for the organization for the particular desire/self-interest of particular players.

4. Unhealthy Promotion Practices: This characteristic is evident when an organization promotes a dedicated or long-time employee to management who is hard-working and good at day-to-day operations, but lacks leadership skills, vision, and the ability to think strategically. This type of promotion can create a vacuum regarding an organization’s ability to develop a long-term vision, build new competencies, and generate new strategies.

Characteristics of a Strong Culture

Strong cultures better lend themselves to high performance. High-performance cultures are results oriented and tend to establish an environment where there is a constructive pressure to perform. In a high-performance culture, there are a number of healthy characteristics that improve organizational performance, such as:

1. Culture-reinforcing Tools: These include things like ceremonies, symbols, language, behavioral rules, and policies. Strong cultures use these tools to produce extraordinary performance from ordinary people. Strong cultures use ceremonies and symbols to emphasize what the company values. Ceremonies and symbols help recognize and celebrate high-performance employees and help create an emotional bond among all employees. Language used in slogans and policies help illustrate the company’s primary values and provide a shared understanding among workers.

2. Intensely People Oriented: Organizations with strong cultures display their concern for their employees in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Treating employees with dignity and respect
  • Granting employees enough autonomy to excel and contribute
  • Holding managers at every level accountable for the growth and development of people who report to them
  • Using of a full range of rewards and consequences to reinforce high-performance behavior
  • Setting clear performance standards for all employees

3. Results Oriented: High-performance cultures invest more time and resources to ensure that employees who excel and achieve performance targets are identified and rewarded. Controls are put in place to collect, analyze, and interpret employee performance data. Quantitative measures of success are used to select and reward employees who perform outstandingly.

4. Emphasis on Achievement And Excellence: High-performance cultures create an atmosphere where there is constructive pressure to be the best. Management pursues practices and policies, and invests necessary resources to inspire people to do their best.

Keep cultivating your culture!

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