The norms, values and beliefs of an organization show up in physical and experiential symbols that embody and communicate culture. Physical spaces, new employee orientation, how people dress, mentoring programs for junior colleagues, awards, traditions and even SWAG all contribute to positive and negative messaging. They help communicate what an organization stands for and can help team members connect their work to a larger purpose.
A psychologist at the MIT Sloan School of Management who developed a model for understanding organizational culture, Edgar Schein, Ph.D., termed these elements “artifacts.” He described them as things that an observer from the outside could easily see, even if not immediately understand their implications. In a WFF Lunch and Learn, management consultant and author of The Do Over, A Story About Writing Your New Story, Tony Bridwell, suggested going on an artifact hunt to explore your own organization’s culture.
Discovering culture and meaning
“I urge leaders to engage team members in looking for organizational or even team-specific artifacts to help them see how various elements reinforce or conflict with desired culture,” Bridwell shared. “Especially if people are encouraged to come with an organizational artifact that is meaningful to them, it can help reground people in the purpose they share in the organization and increase the sense of meaning in their work.”
Physical artifacts, like how office space is organized or the presence of complimentary food can speak to organization culture around hierarchy, collaboration and even the length of the work day. But stories told within the organization can serve as artifacts as well, like parables that help people understand what is valued and what behaviors are acceptable and prized, or discouraged.
Stories are artifacts that reveal values
“You are always telling a story,” Bridwell says. “Just by showing up, being fully present or not, multitasking during a meeting or speaking up, you are telling a story to others about who you are, what your priorities are and your interest in specific topics and the colleagues engaged in them.” Of course, when what’s said does not align with what’s done, the result will be what Bridwell calls “culture wobble.”
Organizational artifacts are one element that can be adjusted to help your team, and an entire organization, better understand its culture and realign existing culture with desired culture.
Artifacts as tangible culture shapers
Changing people’s attitudes and beliefs is a tough, uphill climb. But organization artifacts can sometimes be adjusted quickly and serve as tangible supports for reinforcing desired elements of culture and de-emphasizing those best left behind.
Do senior leaders highlight stories about maverick employees who go out on a limb to accomplish something unique on their own, or recognize strong teams and collaborative efforts that drive shared progress? Both serve as artifacts, but with very different reflections of culture.
By intentionally choosing to highlight different stories, you can, to some degree, rewrite and reinvent a team or organization’s history. It won’t change that Employee X was rewarded in the past for going solo on a big risk, but if that story gets shelved and a different one replaces it, over time culture changes. The same is true for tangible changes like an open office door, casual Fridays, or the Women’s Employee Resource Group with a male champion as its executive sponsor.
“Cultural artifacts are symbols that help both insiders and outsiders understand what it means to belong to that group,” writes Amy Bucher, Ph.D., Chief Behavioral Officer at tech-based consumer health company Lirio. “For group members, artifacts can also help solidify commitments and guide daily behaviors. Having items visually present in the environment that either relate to those values or explicitly state them reinforces the idea of what it means to be a member of that company.”
Make it personal
While tangible symbols and artifacts convey the culture of an organization, they also send messages about individuals. And tweaking and changing them can adjust the messages you are sending. Sharing in What That Sign Says About Your Corporate Culture, Bucher points to a recent visit to another company where employees in a brand-new office space posted their own signs ahead of permanent installations. One had placed a big “Welcome Amy” sign on her office along with the company logo.
But then there are also those passive-aggressive instructional signs posted by employees, such as cafeteria or rest room instructions Bucher noted at another location. She reads these as signals that not everyone is on the same page, that there might not be a strong cultural value of good citizenship and that at least one person is disgruntled enough to design and print warning signs.
Just like your organization, how you present yourself in speech and dress, your office décor, the way you recognize the contributions of team members and the stories you choose to tell serve as artifacts that point to your values. “When you tell stories that are clear, courageous and compassionate toward yourself and others, you demonstrate sincerity and authenticity and are empowered to move culture in the direction you desire,” Bridwell says.