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Understanding the Seven Primary Characteristics of Organizational Culture

written by: Michelle Shuler Key•edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 3/27/2011

Culture in the business world isn't just about how strict your break times are. Learn to interpret the primary characteristics of organizational culture, and you have a road map to your company's strengths and weaknesses.

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    What is Organizational Culture?

    The seven primary characteristics of organizational culture were first defined by UCLA's Jennifer A. Chatman and Karen A. Jehn in a 1994 report for the "Academy of Management Journal." Chatman and Jehn asserted that every organization has each of these elements to varying degrees, and that compiling information about each element creates an overall view of a group's organizational culture.

    A company's success or failure can hinge on these details. Both the culture itself --- where the business falls on each of the primary characteristics -- as well as the adaptability of that culture play a part. Groups with a strong identity thrive in a business environment that supports their principles. If the climate changes and the culture does not, however, a company can begin to falter.

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    The Seven Primary Characteristics


    Chatman and Jehn's seven primary characteristics of organizational culture are:

    Innovation and Risk Taking - Does your organization stick with tried-and-true methods, or are you open to the risk that comes with innovation?

    Attention to Detail - In some industries attention to detail is the most important aspect of success. Financial institutions would be hard-pressed to succeed without meticulous employees. Other companies may work better with a casual, "mistakes happen" attitude.

    Outcome Orientation - While emphasizing the final product may seem like the obvious choice, this characteristic is not an either-or proposition. Some companies focus heavily on procedures, with the assumption that when processes are done correctly, the outcome takes care of itself.

    People Orientation - Certain areas, such as the non-profit sector, tend to work better with a people-oriented culture. Those working for a cause are often emotionally invested in the organization's success. The opposite end of this spectrum encompasses businesses that emphasize strict policies and procedures.

    Team Orientation - Nearly every business with more than a few employees has some level of team orientation, usually in the form of separate departments.

    Aggressiveness - Is your organization determined to be at the top of its field, or are you satisfied with a stable of regular clients who provide a steady income?

    Stability - Companies that emphasize stability are less concerned with growth. They tend to focus on maintaining their current level of success.

    To create a snapshot of your organization's culture, evaluate where you fall in relation to each characteristic.

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    The Importance of Finding a Balance

    A balanced organizational culture does not imply equal or proportionate characteristics. What constitutes balance for your organization is determined by the industry and the company's specific goals. Proper balance in the tech industry, for example, requires heavy emphasis on innovation and aggression. A small-town veterinary practice, on the other hand, will place more emphasis on stability. Outcome orientation serves financial institutions well, while team orientation is a trait that benefits restaurants and other service industries.

    First take a look at your industry and management's goals for your business; then survey your employees. Once you have a picture of where your business falls on each of the seven characteristics of organizational culture, you can compare that to your cultural objectives and create an action plan. This plan helps you not only redirect current employees when necessary, but can be incredibly useful in the hiring process. Candidates whose ideals most closely match your organizational culture will be a better fit for your company, and therefore better suited to help you meet your goals.

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    Chatman, Jennifer A., & Jehn, Karen A. (1994). Assessing the Relationship Between Industry Characteristics and Organizational Culture: How Different Can You Be? (PDF). Academy of Management Journal.

    Image by FreeDigitalPhotos, renjith krishnan