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Orchestras, Onions, and Organizational Culture – A Primer

Have you ever watched an orchestra before they perform a concert? You will see an interesting ritual where musicians individually warm up their instruments as the audience arrives to find their seats.

Next, without a visible external cue – and before the conductor steps on stage, the musicians begin their tuning process. The principal violinist (also known as the concertmaster) will play a tuning note. Fellow violinists seated next to the principal violinist find that note and tune their instruments to match that sound. At this point, the other musicians gradually stop playing individually and focus to find and match the tuning note.

This process spreads from the strings, to wind, and finally to brass instruments until all musicians have matched their ear and instrument to the sound of the original tuning note. When each musician has played the same note and become in tune with every other musician, the orchestra produces a single unified sound. The tuning process is now complete. The conductor enters the stage to the applause of the audience, and the concert is ready to begin.

This tuning process reminds me of how organizational culture starts from a strong and stable center and radiates outwards through the layers of the organization. In research literature, organizational culture is often described as the “unwritten rules of the social game.” Yet, leaders and employees often simply define organizational culture as “how we do things here”. While leaders and employees may not understand how or why a practice or approach came about, they collectively know and follow the accepted ways of thinking and working together.

The origin of many cultural activities can be understood by peeling back the layers or rings that make up organizational culture. Writers and researchers of organization culture use different models to describe organizational culture. I find the onion model by Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov to be one of most relevant models to understand and lead organizational change. The chart below illustrates the four layers of the “culture onion”:

  1. Symbols. At the outer layer, symbols are the most noticeable features of an organization’s culture. Symbols are visible and the easiest element to change. Symbols or organizational culture can include the dress code, language, jargon, status symbols, or pictures. While visible to people in and outside the organization, these objects carry a particular meaning that is only recognized by those who share the culture. For example, I recently read several humorous news stories about the ubiquitous grey fleece vests that represent an unspoken dress code in some industries and regions.
  2. Heroes. Below the surface is the hero layer. This represents the people – who could be alive, dead, real, or imaginary – who embody the characteristics that are highly prized in the organization and serve as models for desired behavior. Who gets recognized and what stories are told and retold to illustrate how these heroes went the extra mile to exceed customer expectations, discover an innovative practice, and overcome difficult obstacles to break new ground?
  3. Rituals. The third layer of the onion represents rituals. This includes events that are celebrated, how people pay respect, written and verbal language, and when and where people meet. Induction into the Twenty Year Club was a legendary ritual at one company I knew. Employees with 20+ years with the organization gathered each year for a parade around the streets and a day long celebration to welcome employees who reached 20 years of employment. This annual event was a powerful ritual to celebrate and reinforce that organization’s culture.
  4. Values. Values are the core of the culture onion and do not change. Cultural values are the anchor and provide stability in spite of changes at the symbols, heroes, and ritual levels. At this deep level of the culture, values cannot be discussed or directly observed by outsiders. In fact, employees generally cannot articulate why they do some things – except that they know and feel the “right” thing to do.

According to Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov, practices are not a layer but cuts across the symbols, heroes, and ritual layers. While practices are visible to the outside observer, the cultural meaning of these practices remains invisible to the outside observer.

I see three ways that orchestras are connected with the onion model and how leaders shape organizational culture.

First. Musicians tune their instruments to match the tuning note and then communicate to fellow musicians how to match the tone, how to fit in, and how to reach oneness. This same process happens in organizational culture as employees learn and pass on an unwritten type of mental operating system that inform the members how to think, speak, and act – as they learned from others.

Second. In addition, musicians – not the conductor – are responsible to ensure they and their peers are in tune with the tuning note. Similarly, employees in an organization will find ways to make sure they let into the organization those who fit and learn the layers of the organization’s culture and keep out those who do not fit and do not understand.

Third. At the midpoint of the concert, the musicians and conductor take a break. When the musicians return, they repeat the tuning process as instruments may have slipped and become slightly sharp or flat due to humidity and other conditions on the stage. This second orchestra-wide tune up takes less time because instruments only need minor adjustments. In organizations, leaders should periodically conduct an organizational culture audit – and peel back the layers of the onion. This audit will help leaders determine if the symbols, heroes, rituals, and practices in their organization are in tune with the values they desire and espouse. If the audit finds some areas out of tune, the onion model shows what and where adjustments can be made to ensure all musicians are in harmony and no one sounds off key.

Does this analogy hit the right note for you – and what do your leaders do to adjust these layers to create the right culture and allow the core values to shine through?

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