Self-knowledge can be the most important form of insight at the individual level, but it is equally valid at the collective layer. Every organization of any size is governed by spoken and unspoken cultural dynamics that dictate the way in which people interact with each other. Individuals who run afoul of those norms and expectations may find themselves ineffective at best and alienated or terminated at worst. It is essential that all workers and leaders understand and appreciate the culture of their organizations to maximize their effectiveness and contentedness.
There are many ways to define the primary types of corporate cultures. All organizations have a purpose, a primary method for making decisions, a means by which status is attained and a method for conflict resolution. By understanding these dynamics in detail, a job applicant or new employee can better ascertain what they are getting into before conflicts or mismatches arise.
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Corporate culture descriptions are a form of generalization. The larger a group gets, the more exceptions may emerge. Typically, these exceptions will tend to underscore the greater truths and characterizations of the whole. Like any generalization, one needs to be aware of difference and diversity within the framework that describes the organization. The list below is intended to be representative, rather than comprehensive. Here are five different types of corporate culture, explained:
— Hierarchical/seniority-based culture.
— Mercenary culture.
— Egalitarian culture.
— Clan culture.
— Elite culture.
A traditional company organization celebrates hierarchy and seniority above all else. In this type of culture, people may hold titles such as assistant senior director or have lapel pins and desk trophies that illustrate the years of tenure at the organization. Governmental departments and union-influenced organizations like public schools very often conform to this description. Pay and benefits are linked to seniority, and pay bands are rigidly enforced. The good news is that a new employee can know what to expect. The bad news is that change can be difficult to enact, and those eager for merit-based advancement may feel stymied.
At the other extreme are companies where an “eat what you kill” ethos has no patience for seniority. Those who sell the most or bring in the most revenue are better rewarded. Everyone in this type of work culture is aware that there is a scoreboard keeping track. Investment banks and increasingly corporate law firms operate this way.
Some startups and nonprofits succeed with a culture of egalitarianism. Everyone from the CEO to a frontline worker feels empowered to speak up and suggest changes and improvements. Generally, individuals feel like their input has equal value to anyone else’s. Of course, sometimes companies see themselves as egalitarian when the actual practice is anything but equal. Another frustration can be slow decision-making when a consensus is not quickly attained.
At these organizations, the sense of mission, loyalty and collaboration is so clear as to create a strong sense of belonging. These companies can be quirky with certain behaviors that only insiders are privy to understand. “That is just the way we do things here,” can often serve as justification for a company that operates in this type of culture to stimy change or innovation. For those on the inside, these cultures can be comforting and welcoming. For those who think differently or advocate for change, they can feel very alienating.
In companies with an elite culture, such as management consulting firms, employees take great pride in the difficulty of gaining a position at the company. Like the U.S. Marine’s old adage, “Maybe you can be one of us,” there is a sense of exclusivity that most people do not qualify for a spot at the company and as a result, the prestige of membership is a great source of fulfillment. These organizations can feel like elite colleges where current students and alumni share pride in belonging. On the downside, this type of workplace sometimes fosters a culture where there is little patience for or appreciation of differences and those who seemingly don’t belong.
The culture of a company is a large determinant of success for employees. The astute job applicant or new employee will have a keen sense of organizational values and behaviors early in the process of joining a new company. Assessing fit is a matter of finding the organizational culture that best complements the work style and personal ethic of everyone.
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