Eight Different Types of Corporate Culture

Self-knowledge can be the most important form of insight at the individual level, but it is equally valid at the collective layer. Every organization of any size is governed by spoken and unspoken cultural dynamics that dictate the way in which people interact with each other. Individuals who run afoul of those norms and expectations may find themselves ineffective at best and alienated or terminated at worst. It is essential that all workers and leaders understand and appreciate the culture of their organizations to maximize their effectiveness and contentedness.

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There are many ways to define the primary types of corporate cultures. All organizations have a purpose, a primary method for making decisions, a means by which status is attained and a method for conflict resolution. By understanding these dynamics in detail, a job applicant or new employee can better ascertain what they are getting into before conflicts or mismatches arise.

Corporate culture descriptions are a form of generalization. The larger a group gets, the more exceptions may emerge. Typically, these exceptions will tend to underscore the greater truths and characterizations of the whole. Like any generalization, one needs to be aware of differences and diversity within the framework that describes the organization. The list below is intended to be representative, rather than comprehensive. Here are eight distinct types of corporate culture, explained:

Hierarchical/Seniority-Based Culture
A traditional company organization celebrates hierarchy and seniority. In this type of culture, people may hold titles such as assistant senior director or have lapel pins and desk trophies that illustrate the years of tenure at the organization. Governmental departments and union-influenced organizations like public schools very often conform to this description. Pay and benefits are linked to seniority, and pay bands are rigidly enforced. The good news is that a new employee can know what to expect. The bad news is that change can be difficult to enact, and those eager for merit-based advancement may feel stymied.

Mercenary Culture
At the other extreme are companies where an “eat what you kill” ethos has no patience for seniority. Those who sell the most or bring in the most revenue are better rewarded. Everyone in this type of work culture is aware that there is a scoreboard keeping track. Investment banks and increasingly corporate law firms operate this way.

Egalitarian Culture
Some startups and nonprofits succeed with a culture of egalitarianism. Everyone from the CEO to a frontline worker feels empowered to speak up and suggest changes and improvements. Individuals feel like their input has equal value to anyone else’s. Of course, sometimes companies see themselves as egalitarian when the actual practice is anything but equal. Another frustration can be slow decision-making when a consensus is not quickly attained.

[ READ: Reasons to Quit Your Job. ]
Clan Culture
At these organizations, the sense of mission, loyalty and collaboration is so clear as to create a keen sense of belonging. These companies can be quirky with certain behaviors that only insiders are privy to understand. “That is just the way we do things here,” can often serve as justification for a company that operates in this type of culture to stifle change or innovation. For those on the inside, these cultures can be comforting and welcoming. For those who think differently or advocate for change, they can feel very alienating.

Elite Culture
In companies with an elite culture, such as management consulting firms, employees take immense pride in the difficulty of gaining a position at the company. Like the U.S. Marine’s adage, “Maybe you can be one of us,” there is a sense of exclusivity that most people do not qualify for a spot at the company and as a result, the prestige of membership is a reliable source of fulfillment. These organizations can feel like elite colleges where current students and alumni share pride in belonging. On the downside, this type of workplace sometimes fosters a culture where there is little patience for or appreciation of differences and those who don’t belong.

Experimental Culture
Sometimes described as an “ad hoc” culture, experimental cultures are defined by rapid iteration and lack of structure. Engineers and product development professionals call this approach rapid prototyping. These organizations think of a new product or method, decide on what is minimally viable to define success, and execute to test the outcome. At their best, these often-young companies and startups blaze new paths to innovations and achievements where others have failed. At their worst, these organizations can stress out teams and individuals by constantly changing the definitions of success and moving the goal posts.

Cause-Based Culture
Some organizations are defined by a cause or purpose that transcends the entity itself. There is passion for a subject that drives all decision-making and prioritization. Whether it is a political outcome, a social goal or even a shared interest or purpose, the members of this team agree that their purpose is clear and important. Curiously, not all nonprofits or social movement organizations are truly cause-based after a time, but most started that way at their inception. Idealists will feel at home in this culture if their values and interests align with those of the collective. The astute job seeker will work to ascertain that the cause is genuine and current or vestigial in nature before committing to such a team.

Innovation or Creative Culture
Music labels, film studios and advertising agencies are a few examples of industries that are often innovation or creative oriented. Creating or discovering artistic accomplishment may be the highest achievement in a company culture of this kind. Beyond the arts, some science-oriented organizations equally value innovative approaches to biomedical solutions or engineering accomplishments. While invigorating for the artistically or scientifically creative, these cultures can be characterized by a “what have you done for me lately” atmosphere that is quick to forget yesterday’s achievement in favor of today’s activity.

The culture of a company can be a large determinant of success for employees. The astute job applicant or new employee will have a keen sense of an organization’s values and behaviors early in the process of joining a new company. Assessing fit is a matter of finding the organizational culture that best complements the work style and personal ethic of everyone.


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