Our NHS People

What is culture?

Culture is notoriously difficult to describe. What does it really mean? And are people always talking about the same thing when they’re talking about culture?

A common and helpful way to describe culture is, “the way we do things around here”. By inference, that might or might not be different from “the way people do things around there” in other organisations.

Another way to think about it might be as the “personality” or character of an organisation. You can’t quite put your finger on any one single item – instead, it is a wide range of factors that, together, make up what we’re calling the culture of the organisation.

It can be fuzzy and difficult to identify. There are many different models and ways of thinking about culture, which is what can make it tricky to define and talk about. Looking at organisations through a cultural lens means seeing the organisation as a system of meanings, values and routines, where our actions come from habit, tradition and what we take for granted. And because we take it for granted, it makes it difficult to see. After all, a fish takes the water it swims in for granted until it is taken out, and only then is when it realises that it’s whole structure and way of living is specifically adapted for living in the water.

Have a look around at work, really notice what’s around you, most of which you’ll take for granted. Who’s in charge? What clothes do people wear in different areas? How do people talk to each other? Which lifts do people use? Who talks with whom? And about what? Who doesn’t talk in meetings?

Once you really start looking and noticing you can get closer to understanding the idea of different ‘bits’ or components coming together and creating a culture.

And what about you? Where do you fit in? Why do you do some of the things you do at work? Is it through choice each time – or ‘just that’s what we do around here’?