Organizational Culture and Anthropology

Organizational Culture and Anthropology

Cultures come in all different flavors.  


As a student at the University of Michigan, organizational culture has been a part of my personal curriculum. I took a course in the Ross Business School which highlighted Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jessie Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture. Variation in workplace cultures have always existed, but what made their book so compelling was their creation of eight culture profiles: Purpose, Caring, Order, Safety, Authority, Results, Enjoyment, and Learning. Their classification quickly became the popular model for assessing diversity in culture – and rightfully so. I found their account is nuanced, concise, and digestible all at the same time. But for those of us out there who lean into ambiguity, the gray area, what if there are more than eight profiles? 


Interestingly enough, anthropological studies have addressed a similar phenomenon: how many cultures are? How would we classify them? What leads to their divergence? While hard to calculate and likely an underestimate, studies have shown there are about 3814 distinct cultures and 6909 different languages among humans.  In the world, there are about 216MM businesses. To assume they all operate with drastically different cultures would be naïve given the sheer number. However, each business’ culture is unique in some way, just as each human culture is unique in some way.  


So what varies in a culture to create something unique? The anthropologists in this study explain cultures diversify by 1) the resources, ecology, and environment and 2) the life history. While this may be seemingly unrelated to organizations or your organization, this scientific take offers a metaphorical perspective. It helps to explain why cultures are unique, and the importance of understanding the underlying factors that make them unique.  


At first, this may seem confusing or irreverent to organizations. When you break their concepts down, their merit in the business context becomes apparent. To the first point that cultures evolve as a result of their resources, ecology, and environment: organizations are likely to adapt from the same circumstances. A company pressed financially, – i.e. the resources – one with a complicated chain of command or contentious workplace relationships, – i.e. the ecology –, and/or one dealing with the shift to a virtual world – i.e. the environment– is destined to be facing challenges that require organizational change.  


This framework illustrates how specific aspects in a company contribute to the overall culture. Using this framework, parsing apart the nuances in each aspect of a culture, may help to better identify the issues facing an organization.