The Color of Organizational Culture

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One way to describe organizations is to refer to their culture. Organizational culture is a set of behaviors and beliefs members of an organization share as a result of having worked together over a period of years. Being able to see patterns of organizational culture is a core competency for leadership. How are your skills at identifying corporate culture?

Are you able to spot the signs of culture that give clues about the beliefs driving an organization’s behavior? This is critical, especially if you are trying to help the organization navigate the waters of change. If you don’t understand the organization’s culture, you can be blindsided by resistance you never imagined would be there and unable to identify its underlying source.

One way we might categorize organizational cultures is by color. “Color semiotics” is the study of how we attribute feelings and ideas to colors. Of course, these reactions are culturally-determined themselves, so my analogy may not work in other countries.

Here is the idea: Organizations take on identifiable patterns or cultural configurations that can be grouped into four categories. In this case, four colors.

Blue organizations tend to be rule-based. They like order and established procedures. Regulations and hierarchical structures are important to people in these kinds of organizations. Sometimes, however, such organizations remain firmly committed to established procedures even when the data indicate that these procedures are not working to accomplish the goals of the organization. Advancement in such organizations takes place through conformity to existing authority structures and seniority. Such organizations might also be described as “institutions.”

Red organizations are driven by fast-paced urgency. They are ripe with an idea they want to burst upon the world. They are characterized by activity, a push approach to motivation, and a penchant for revolutionary change. Such organizations, however, may trample the rights and needs of the individual in their efforts to engage everyone in their unified vision for the future. On the positive side, these organizations get things done. They are more action-oriented than theory-oriented and in a rapidly changing world, they often produce effective outcomes. Such organizations might also be described as “movements.”

Yellow organizations are like a big family. They love tradition. They are generally happy places to work. They are homey, decorative, and comfortable. These organizations are slow to change and this is not a good attribute in a rapidly-changing economic and technological environment. Yellow organizations often decline because they become disconnected from their customers. On the positive side, such organizations suffer less stress and provide a healthy workplace environment. These organizations can be thought of as business families.

Green organizations are like a living organism. They do less planning and depend more on their shared values and vision to focus their people. They feel environmentally responsible not only as stewards of the earth but also as citizens of the world. Some of the characteristics of such organizations are spontaneity, harmony, and natural pull rather than push motivation. Such organizations are the most adaptable to change because they have the least amount of formal structure inhibiting such change. On the downside, such organizations can become victims of too much chaos and lose the power of focus. Such organizations can also be described as “living bodies.”

Let me be clear; as far as I know, this taxonomy of organizations has no empirical research behind it. It is completely mine and comes more from intuition rather than from research. I present it as a possible way to think about organizational cultures. As leaders, we have to be adept at seeing organizational patterns because those are the patterns we have to work with in order to bring about desired change.

What do you think? I would love to get your thoughts in the comments section below.

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