The best definitions of organisational culture

Memory Nguwi / Posted On: 27 August 2020 / Updated On: 25 May 2022 / Organisational Design and Development / 3,465

Search Blog Click here to search the site.
The best definitions of organisational culture

Download Full Article

I have put together information that will help you understand organizational culture definition in detail. When you define organizational culture properly, organizational culture change becomes even easy. Various scholars and top authors have defined organizational culture based on their theories and experience and I am sharing some of the definitions of the organizational culture here. This understanding will help you as you go through the process of organisational culture change. Without an understanding of organisational culture, most organisational culture change efforts fail.  I have researched organisational culture by looking at the top scholars on organisational culture and picked the best definitions.


“Corporate culture means different things to different people. There are more than 50 distinct definitions in the academic literature, including the stories employees tell to interpret events, organizational rituals, and corporate symbols. The official culture statements we studied, in contrast, display a striking consistency in how they define corporate culture.” Donald Sull, Stefano Turconi, and Charles Sull(2020)



What is organizational culture?

Organisational culture


1. Hofstede Definition of Culture 

Hofstede (1991) defines organizational culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes a member of one group from another”. It is evident from this definition that organisational culture is a shared group phenomenon that results from how a group interacts with its environment. The keywords in this definition are that it is the “collective programming of the mind”. If you take literally from the software side, once software has been programmed, to change it you would need to update the software through programming again. This means that in essence organisational culture according to Hofstede represents instructions and commands installed in the minds of the people. The instructions are equally shared by all group members? Organizational culture is a group phenomenon, once a group has been programmed, the only way to change the culture of the organization is for you to uninstall the current program and put in another program or upgrade the current program. Even from a software point of view, that is not an easy task.


The definition implies that different cultural groups can have different programs which makes them different. The other key takeaway from this definition is that organisational culture cannot be present in one person and one person cannot represent it. People from the same organisational culture group are likely to show similar behaviour patterns as they deal with day to day challenges of life. This definition of organisational culture allows organizations to study and understand organizational behaviors and maximize that behaviour for the benefit of the organisation. According to Hofstede, you can take organisational culture as “software of the mind”.


Related: Organisational culture and why organisational culture change fails



2. Edgar Schein Definition of Culture 

Edgar Schein (2004) defines organisational culture as “the pattern of shared basic assumptions - invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration - that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”. In this definition of organisational culture, the key theme is that organisational culture is a group phenomenon. It is a product of shared experience by a group of people as they try to cope with the challenges in their environment. What is interesting in this definition is that organisational culture can be taught to new members as a “ way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”. For those involved in organisational culture change, the best way to transform the culture of the organisation is to remember that organisational culture can be taught to new members of the organisation. This implies that if you want to change the organisational culture you can have a plan that teaches old members your preferred organisational culture. Although not easy, the underlying principle in this is that when teaching people the new and preferred organisational culture, it must be a shared experience by a group of people for it to stick.



3. Chris Edmonds Definition of Culture

S. Chris Edmonds defines organizational culture as follows; “Culture is all about how people treat each other—how leaders treat their teams and peers, how employees treat each other, and how people treat customers and vendors. It’s about relationships and respect,” This definition of organisational culture focuses on how people interact within an organisational setting. These people include employees and other stakeholders.  The emphasis is on the relationship and respect that these people show to each other as they interact. The focus of this definition of organisational culture is building productive relationships centered on respect. Unlike the first two definitions of organisational culture, this definition focuses on the role played by the leadership in shaping organisational culture.  Specifically, it looks at leaders as role models in the way they treat teams, peers, and other key stakeholders. The assumption is that if leaders do this well by exhibiting the types of behavior they want to promote, it should stick to the rest of the organizational members.


Related: Culture Analytics: The New Gold Mine for Sustainable Organisational Transformation



4. Dr. Elliott Jaques Definition of Culture

Dr. Elliott Jaques(1951) defines organizational culture as follows “the culture of the factory is its customary and traditional way of thinking and doing of things, which is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members, and which new members must learn, and at least partially accept, to be accepted into service in the firm”. The keyword here is that organisational culture is a customary and traditional way of thinking and doing things. It is shared by all its members again underpinning the fact that it is a group phenomenon.  Interesting to note in this definition of organisational culture is that new members must learn and partially accept that this is the way things are done here or else they will not be accepted into the organisation. This definition dovetails with how Edgar Schein defines organisational culture. An interesting lesson here is that it is very likely that any attempt to change organizational culture by focusing on a few individuals may not succeed, as the group needs to have some form of consensus on the group mode of thinking and doing things.


Related: Organisational Culture and Why You Should Never Ignore It



5. Ravasi and Schultz's Definition of Culture

Ravasi and Schultz (2006) define organisational culture as “a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors”. This definition of organisational culture implies that these assumptions are shared by a group and form the foundation of that group’s behaviour. The fact that this definition takes this as a group phenomenon, means new members will need to be taught a new way of doing things.



6. Marcella Brema Definition of Culture

In her book Organisational culture change, Marcella Brema(2012) defines organizational culture as “ it’s how we do things around here”. She further indicates that culture can be observed: “when you enter a building, you get a glimpse of corporate culture right away from what you see – how the office looks and what people are doing”. She, however, acknowledges that the above definition of organisational culture is simplistic as it is hard to observe because “ culture is not visible from the outside right away”-. This definition of organisational culture acknowledges that what drives what you see as characterization of organisational culture at the surface does not reflect the true culture of the organisation. The author goes on to say, “Culture is not just how we do things around here. The other part of the culture is under the water’s surface and that is how we think and feel about what we are doing here. Why are we doing these things in this particular way.” This author acknowledges that has a component that is hidden, and that drives the behaviour of those living in that organisational culture.


Related: The 4 elements of a transformational culture



7. Cameron and Quinn Definition of Culture

Cameron and Quinn look at organisational culture differently. They see organisational culture as characterized by the organisation falling into one or more of the four quadrants. The first one is the Clan culture quadrant, which focuses on doing things together. The second one is the hierarchical culture which focuses on doing things right. The third one is the adhocracy culture which focuses on doing things first. The fourth and final one is a market culture that focuses on doing things first. Organizations according to the authors can fall into any one of these cultures and sometimes they can have a bit of all the four cultures but there will be one dominant organisational culture.



8. Scholtz Definition of Culture

Scholtz (1987) defines organizational culture through the identification of five culture types; stable, reactive, anticipating, exploring, and creating. This definition of organisational culture is more behavioral. As an example, if the organisational culture is reactive it means it lacks pre-planning in the way people in the organisation deal with the challenges they face. This definition has high face validity, as many people are likely to find a connection and meaning when describing organisational culture using this approach. It does not talk about the underlying beliefs or the fact that organisational culture is a product of a shared learning experience.


Related: Build a High-Performance Culture and All will be Successful



9. O’Reilly, Chatman, and Caldwell Definition of Culture

O’Reilly, Chatman, and Caldwell (1991) look at seven core characteristics of organisational culture. These are innovation and risk-taking, attention to detail, outcome orientation, people orientation, team orientation aggressiveness, and stability. This definition of organisational culture takes a behavioural approach to organisational culture. For example, if the organization’s culture is people-oriented, it means the focus is that the goals and outcomes of the organisation will be achieved through prioritizing people and people practices.



Importance of Organisational Culture 

workplace culture


Here are 5 reasons why corporate culture is critical:

  • Strong employee engagement 
  • Reduction in employee turnover
  • Ease of onboarding
  • Enhanced recruitment efforts
  • Improving productivity 



1. Strong Employee Engagement

Employee involvement relates to how devoted, connected, and enthusiastic a person is about their job at a given company. It's how people form a genuine connection with a company, and it offers long-term benefits. That connection with the company impacts individual performance and overall organizational performance at large. 


Employee engagement skyrockets when an immersive organizational culture is established. Obviously, the type of culture that is created and promoted will influence this involvement, but a strong corporate culture has a lot of potential for a positive employee experience. Those with a strong culture, for example, have a 72% greater employee engagement rate than companies with poor cultures.


Purpose and clear expectations produce an organizational culture-driven work environment. Employees are motivated and inspired to be more engaged in their job and interactions with others as a result of this. It also results in a high degree of employee involvement, which boosts organizational performance. Having a deep bond with a company and its people produces a positive atmosphere that is good for the employee experience.


Related: Organisational culture change: 11 misconceptions that will make you fail



2. Reducing Employee Turnover 

People are less likely to leave a workplace where they feel appreciated and respected. As a result, businesses must cultivate a healthy culture that supports their organizational values and mission statement. Employee job satisfaction leads to lower turnover, which saves time and money in the hiring process. Businesses that have developed a healthy culture must work to maintain and strengthen it.


In today's competitive market, many firms find it challenging to retain employees. By generating a sense of openness and community while acknowledging diversity within your sector, a strong corporate culture can assist reduce attrition. Because nearly 38% of employees desire to quit their employment because of poor company culture, and 60% of employees have left or would leave a job because of poor leadership, taking the effort to develop good cultural values that align with your firm's goals is critical. A strong culture can provide a competitive edge over a business' competitors. 


In a Glassdoor multi-country study, 74 % in the United States stated they would search for jobs elsewhere if their workplace culture deteriorated. Organizational culture must be a dynamic process that is cultivated over time if it is to continue to benefit from high staff retention.


Related: Breakthrough thinking on organisation culture



3. Easing Onboarding 

Onboarding is generally easier in companies with strong organizational cultures. This is because repeatable systems are in place to guarantee that new workers have access to the resources they require during the transition time to adapt and integrate with the culture of your organization. Research shows that individual performance tends to be high for employees who quickly settle into new roles.  Employee loyalty and general longevity are often correlated with better onboarding methods. Communicating culture will aid new employees in understanding fundamental principles and day-to-day activities during this process.


Businesses with a strong culture are increasingly depending on effective onboarding processes to train new employees. Orientation, training, and organizational performance management programs are all examples of onboarding techniques that help new workers gain access to the necessary resources and make a smooth transition into their roles. This increases employee retention and employee job satisfaction. Onboarding is a wonderful approach for firms to ensure that new hires are aware of their company's key principles and quickly make an impact on organizational performance. 



4. Enhanced Recruiting Efforts

Finding suitable employees can be difficult, especially with so many start-up companies. As a result, many people have refined their job search and hiring criteria. Over a third of employees said they would pass up a dream job opportunity if the company culture didn't match their personal values. In the war for talent, good cultural values can give your organization a competitive edge.  You can strengthen your recruitment efforts and attract excellent applicants by cultivating strong company culture. However, what one individual considers to be an excellent business culture, another may consider being one in which they do not belong—everyone is different.



5. Improving Productivity 

Employees who have the resources and tools they need to thrive are more productive and perform better in general. The structure of a workplace is influenced by organizational culture in ways that bring employees with similar skill sets together. When handling firm projects, those with similar experiences and skills may be able to work more rapidly together.


Related: Culture Transformation: Q & A with Chris Edmonds



Characteristics of a Great Organisational Culture 

diverse workplace


1. Excellent Communication

Nothing irritates employees more than unclear job requirements, which is why efficient communication is one of the most critical aspects of positive workplace culture. Managers should not make themselves inaccessible to their staff, but should instead endeavor to provide frequent organizational and individual performance feedback. Employees should be encouraged to communicate with one another and supplied with the tools they need to do so. Three principles should guide all company communication: clarity, courtesy, and proactiveness.


Workplace communication that follows patterns of clarity, civility, and proactivity has been shown to help employees express themselves effectively and improve teamwork, resulting in increased production. Employee involvement also tends to be high for such organizations. 



2. Pleasant workspace

The type of physical environment in which workers work each day can have a significant impact on how they feel about their employment and employers. Comfortable work environments with facilities and advantages that people value have a big impact on employee involvement. Inquire about the benefits and amenities provided by your prospective employer. To attract and retain employees, some companies will provide free food, lunch stipends, conveniently located office spaces, and other benefits.


Related: Leadership and culture



3. Diversity 

Another important aspect of success is being aware of habits and cultures that are different from your own. An organization with a diverse and strong culture has a higher level of tolerance and acceptance of others, which fosters teamwork and collaboration.


In terms of culture, if everyone in an organization fits the same demographic, it should be a red flag. Variety in recruiting, diversity in thought, and diversity in approach are all organizational values that great firms and institutions promote. This should be mirrored in the teams and people with whom you work on a regular basis. 



4. Core Values and a Strong Purpose

Creating a sense of purpose among employees is an important component of every long-term business. The foundation of a purpose-driven culture is a set of fundamental values, which are then mirrored in the company's long-term objectives. The company's core values are far more than generic mission statements put on the back of the employee handbook for firms with successful, purpose-driven cultures. These ideals should be weaved throughout every activity taken by the firm. Employees have a clear motivation to work, and organizational values can also aid the organization as a whole.


According to WeSpire's 2018 survey, Gen Z will account for 30% of the workforce by 2022 and will be the first generation to value purpose over money. They read the mission statements and organizational values to see where they fit in best. This generation demands consistency and sincerity from you, and they will call you out if you aren't on the same page.


Related: Can fear create a high-performance culture?



5. Transparency

A culture of unease and uncertainty is created by secrets or a lack of communication from the top down. Positive workplace cultures encourage transparency so that every team member understands where they stand and where the firm is headed.


In conclusion, I would like to emphasize again that no organisation will be able to achieve organizational culture transformation without understanding what organizational culture is. A clear definition of organisational culture gives clarity to the process of organisational culture transformation.  As an example, for those that decide to take the definition to include underlying assumptions and beliefs the culture change journey will dig beneath the surface to understand what drives the behavior of the different cultural groups.   This process of organisational culture transformation is unlikely to be achieved through assessing culture through questionnaires. This process would likely need deeper analysis such as focus group discussions. If you decide to take the behavioural approach the journey on organisational culture change is likely to focus on the surface, on observable behavior. Whichever approach you decide to take as you go through your organisational culture change program it must be anchored on your understanding of what organisational culture is.



Memory Nguwi is an Occupational Psychologist, Data Scientist, Speaker, & Managing Consultant- Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. Phone +263 4 481946-48/481950/2900276/2900966 or cell number +263 77 2356 361 or email:  or visit our website at

Memory Nguwi
      View Memory Nguwi's full profile

Related Articles

Popular Categories