Why Culture Matters in Organizations

I’m studying The Power of Team Culture on Coursera. These are my revision notes for weeks 1 and 2.

What are Teams?

  • A team is any group of people that performs some collective task on which they have to work together, that is, they have to cooperate
  • In businesses, there are many tasks that require coordination. It’s the job of management to make sure that people coordinate on these tasks.
  • It is the cooperation in the performance of a task that makes a group a team
  • “We” intentions versus “I” intentions

A Closer Look at Culture

  • Culture is whatever people learn from other people, and transmit to other people, especially by interacting with them.
  • Embodied culture is the things we don’t event need to think about (e.g. dribbling ball, singing anthem, attitudes to horse meat)
  • Values and goals that guide our actions
  • Teams need their preconceived routines, their ways of reasoning about the world and their goals and values

Culture as Cultivation

  • Cultivation of children – trying to make them more closely conform to the kind of people that culture wants them to be, giving them instruction or discipline
  • Modification of bodies through cultural practices (e.g. foot binding, ear piercing)
  • Performance in sport depends upon cultivation of the body (e.g. weight training)
  • Schools are institutions for the transmission of culture
  • Many teams do their own cultivation (e.g. McDonalds has Hamburger University, JetBlue University)

Being Unaware of Culture

  • We are not even aware of a lot of culture we acquire from others
  • For example, how close we stand to each other
    • Proxemics is the study of the amount of space people feel necessary to keep between themselves and other people
      • Intimate zone (0 to 18 inches in America)
      • Personal zone (18 inches to 4 feet in America)
      • Social zone (4 feet to 12 feet in America)
      • Public zone (beyond 12 feet in America)
    • These distances vary based on your cultural upbringing
  • Cooperation on teams involves expectations of this sort.
  • When the expectation are violated, the performance of the team can suffer

Expectations and Realities

  • Study about the difficulties people experience when they travel across cultural boundaries
    • Researchers wanted to know how the expectations that people had before they travelled abroad compared with their experiences to people who’d never left the United States
    • Groups: students who had never left the US, Peace Corp workers, and Chinese students living in the US
    • Draw up a long list of 33 things that might differ across cultural boundaries.
    • The students evaluated each of the other items on the list based on how difficult they expected their adjustment to the cultural differences to be
    • They ranked the items in terms of difficulty adjustment from 1 to 33
    • In many cases, expectations versus reality matched. However, some surprising differences with pace of life and punctuality. People expected that these would be easy to adjust to, but were actually quite difficult

The Little Cultural Things that Matter

  • Examples of differences based on Prof. Urban’s travels in Brazil:
    • Don’t waste time (US expectation) versus take it easy (Brazilian expectation)
    • “Game” of trying to run over pedestrians
  • GlobalPharm example:
    • hired top sales people from competitor, but a significant number had left in less than a year
    • possibly due to method of reporting expenses made new hires feel they weren’t trusted
  • All examples of culture shock

Culture Shock

  • A definition: Travellers are initially optimistic and have positive expectations regarding interaction with their hosts. As they actually become involved in the role relationships and encounter frustrations in trying to achieve certain goals when the proper means are unclear or unacceptable, they become confused and depressed and express negative attitudes regarding the host country.
  • There is a relationship between culture and feelings or emotions
  • Culture shock is related to mazeway disintegration
  • A mazeway as a kind of a mental map for life


  • Habit is second nature
  • Habitus: many of our habits are acquired as part of the culture in which we are immersed
  • Examples:
    • Brazilians ignoring lane markers
    • Food we like and dislike
    • Clothes, music, books, movies, hairstyles
  • Look at the teams you belong to, try to identify some of the habits, and likes and dislikes that are typical of the group

Characteristic Ways of Speaking within the Team

  • The team often develops recognisable ways of speaking
  • Unfamiliar acronyms, like AOB means “at or better”
  • Motorola: “the dog will eat it”
  • General Motors: “keep brands within their swimlanes”
  • Teams develop a specific habitus
  • We can regard the team habitus as contributing to the motivational basis for team success

What We Say Versus What We Do

  • Businesses come up with statements about what their corporate culture is
  • Can’t assume that what people describe is the same as what they do when they actually live the culture every day
  • Statements about culture are not necessarily accurate descriptions, but ratherserve some other purpose
    • e.g. Enron: public culture statement “We’re honest”. In actuality, fraud and deceit

Hiring and Cultural Fit

  • McDonald’s has “standard phrases”. e.g. “do you want fries with that?”
  • Example of employee hired as “sandwich associate”
    • let go 2 months later because not a “good fit”
    • they looked for a certain type of person who’s able to follow directions and to not take matters into their own hands
  • In developing a team designed to achieve specific goals, it is crucial that recruitment efforts be focused on finding new team members whose existing cultural orientation fits the culture of the team
  • The question hiring managers should be looking to answer is, “does this candidate’s values align with those of the company”

High Culture

  • “High culture” is cultivated tastes for the high arts and for learning (as opposed to the everyday things that we learn and transmit to other people)

Shakespeare in the Bush

Hiring as Cultural Matching

Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms
Author: Lauren A. Rivera
Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 77, No. 6 (December 2012), pp. 999-1022
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41723081


This article presents culture as a vehicle of labor market sorting. Providing a case study of hiring in elite professional service firms, I investigate the often suggested but heretofore empirically unexamined hypothesis that cultural similarities between employers and job candidates matter for employers’ hiring decisions. Drawing from 120 interviews with employers as well as participant observation of a hiring committee, I argue that hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting; it is also a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms. Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles. Concerns about shared culture were highly salient to employers and often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity. I unpack the interpersonal processes through which cultural similarities affected candidate evaluation in elite firms and provide the first empirical demonstration that shared culture—particularly in the form of lifestyle markers—matters for employer hiring. I conclude by discussing the implications for scholarship on culture, inequality, and labor markets.

Joe’s note: the above study looks into what happens, but is this actually a good thing?

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