A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about organizational culture and the huge impact it has on how people act and feel. During the past 12 months, I’ve had a unique opportunity in my life of being part of a number of different organizations and seeing firsthand how significant culture is in setting the tone of what people experience.

I’ve worked for three different organizations during the last year. And I’ve also experienced the impact of culture at several different churches. We also examined culture in deciding where to send our oldest son to college.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” my friend told me. It’s a famous quote, but one I had not heard before. I’ve been chewing on that phrase ever since. Until this past year, I had not been so intensely aware of how much culture impacts everything else that happens in a company, a church or even a family.

The culture of an organization is the shared set of beliefs that impact how people act and feel, as well as what they experience. It’s kind of an unwritten set of rules that the people in a group share, but don’t necessarily discuss or review. For someone new to an organization, he or she has to figure out what defines the culture. What is driving how people act, react and treat each other?

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For 10 years, I was surrounded by one dominant culture that influenced the main areas of my life. I worked at a church. So the culture of this one organization impacted not only my job, but my spiritual community, my friend group and my family.

I loved many things about this culture. It was highly relational. It was authentic. Extremely welcoming. Genuine and friendly. The top priority of this culture was God and the desire to understand more about faith and how to apply it to everyday life. It was a safe place for people who were hurting. It was also kind and compassionate.  If someone was in need, there was an assumption that other people in the group would step up to help.

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When our church became part of a much larger church and my role changed, I experienced a shift in culture at my workplace. By its very nature, the culture at a larger organization will feel different. The environment alone was a huge change. I had worked in a small office that was an open environment with everyone within voice range of each other. We moved into a large office building. I had my own office with a couch and whiteboard and needed to schedule meetings with people if I wanted to discuss something.

The larger church explained the difference in how things function by using a sports analogy. The staff at a smaller church will function like a basketball team. Each of the players on the court has a position, but they also are constantly watching what is happening with the entire team. Players can easily switch positions if someone on the team needs help.

A larger church will function more like a football team. Every player has a specific job to do. They stay focused on their role and often can’t even see the entire field during a play. Players stay in their lane. People have to be more specialized for the organization to be able to scale. People are highly skilled at what they do, and as a result, the organization is able to create a structured, polished, creative experience.

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I was attracted to the third work environment that I experienced this past year because of its mission, sense of community and high level of creativity. I work at a non-profit organization that is focused on missions and media.

The staff has an unusually high commitment to the mission of the organization, which is to reach people throughout the world with the urgent message of God’s love for them. In fact, the staff is so highly committed to the mission, that the majority of them fundraise their own salary. That is correct. They are not paid by the organization. In addition to doing their job, they also have to do the hard work of raising support to pay their own salary. This fact alone has a major impact on the culture of the organization.

This non-profit also has an incredibly strong sense of community. The founder and his wife both have key roles in the organization. They have a large family, and many of their children work or volunteer throughout the week. The workplace includes a nursery and playroom. A volunteer watches the young children of moms who work there. Having kids running around during the day adds to the sense of community and the way people care for each other. It also demonstrates that the organization places a high value on family.

The organization closed for two weeks during Christmas break. I was struck by the culture when we all returned after being gone for those two weeks. When I walked into the building, everyone was standing in the lobby. At first, I wondered if maybe the fire alarm had gone off, and they were all just waiting to go back to their offices. Then I walked in and everyone started greeting me, hugging me and asking about my break. For the first 30 minutes of the day, everyone in the office spent time chatting and catching up. In another environment that placed its highest value on task and productivity, this might not have happened. I love the focus on relationship and community, mixed with a strong sense of mission that keeps people moving forward.

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Finally, we’ve been visiting a church near our home the past few months. It’s a large independent church with a great diversity in age groups. I am guessing that families have been part of the church for generations. I have sensed that the church is also trying to slowly shift its culture to touch more young adults and families, while still keeping its large population of older adults. It’s been interesting to watch how they are kindly and carefully doing this.

So what is the point of all of this?

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What I’ve learned is there isn’t a right or wrong culture. However, the culture plays a huge role in how people feel when they start to engage in a community. Culture is so important that it “eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, you can create systems and strategies for how something will operate, but culture will still make a greater impact.

Each of the environments that I described has a set of weaknesses that go along with what makes them work. The point is that organizations have to choose how they want their culture to look and feel. Good leaders will guide the culture because if they don’t, the participants will decide for them, and the culture might end up looking different than what they wanted.

We also get to choose what type of culture we want to be part of. If you don’t like the culture, you can try to influence it to go in a different direction. Or you can decide to be part of an organization with a different culture. Knowing what elements of culture are most important to you can help you decide what type of environment you want to be part of.

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Have you experienced a positive culture that made an impact on you? Have you thought about what you value most in the culture of an organization?

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