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Leveraging Your Organization's Culture for Professional DevelopmentThere is much written about the value of corporate culture. Studies indicate that its importance is widely recognized. A recent study published in American Sociological Review concluded that students who displayed characteristics that “fit” into a workplace culture were significantly more likely to be hired than students with similar credentials who were not perceived as a good fit.

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rice University, Erin Cech, who conducted another study that looked at wage inequality said, “Cultural ideologies within professions may seem benign and have little salience outside of a profession’s boundaries, but may play an important role in wage inequality.” In essence cultural similarities in the workplace are seen as capital with economic value.

Being hired and being happy and successful in your career is strongly affected by how well you adapt to the prevailing culture. But how, exactly, do you define workplace culture? What are its elements?

In 2005 David Foster Wallace opened a commencement speech at Kenyon College with this often repeated story: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Being completely immersed in any culture renders it practically invisible, which makes defining your corporate culture the first step toward merging your personal style with it.

Organizational culture includes tangibles like a company’s dress code and its policy about flex time, as well as intangibles such as team dynamics, valued personality styles and ethics. Culture is expressed through the attitudes of the individuals who work there, along with the behaviors that are recognized and rewarded, and the political climate.

You can begin to see and understand your company’s culture by examining three of its specific elements:

  • Communication
  • Work patterns and physical environment
  • Individual power


A formal structure values tradition very highly, favors written communication, and considers humor as disruptive. Meetings are structured and present information that is fully developed.

More moderate organizational structures conduct meeting with agendas but welcome free-flowing discussions. Memos and drop-by conversations are the norm, and intelligent, well-timed humor is appreciated.

Communication in a casual office is informal, relying on voicemail, email, and oral agreements. Meetings and group interactions are often informal and spontaneous.

Work Patterns & Physical Environment

Formal organizations place a high priority on the rank of an individual, which is reflected by the size and decor of office and the desirability of such things as parking spaces and seating arrangements at meetings. Family obligations are kept separate from work, and arriving early and staying late is appreciated.

Work patterns in more moderate workplaces are a bit more relaxed. Though long hours are noticed, rewards come from results. Some family activities, such as company picnics, are endorsed.

Casual organizations support flex time, focusing on results rather than where the work is done. Meeting areas take precedence over large executive offices, and individuals are valued for their expertise regardless of rank.

Individual Power

The power to see your ideas put into action and to get things done is also dictated by the organizational culture of a company. In formal companies power resides in the hands of a few. Position and title allows control over key resources.

Power of authority is respected in more moderate organizations, but team leaders and department heads are willing to seek expertise and experience from others of lesser status. Professional expertise is valued over status.

In casual organizations personal power stems from a person’s knowledge, actions, character, and relationships. Getting a job done takes precedence over status.


The ability to merge personal style with the culture of an organization is interpreted as professionalism in the workplace and as such impacts management’s judgment of your competence and overall contribution to the organization.


The workplace course titled, Professional Presence in a Casual World, which has already been presented to over 1 million people, is specifically designed to help attendees to identify the elements of the cultural structure within their organization and merge their style with it, without sacrificing individuality.

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