Organizational Culture and Anthropology: What's The Link?

By Addam W.G. Marcotte, MSOD

Organizational culture is a concept that has become widely adopted and discussed in today’s corporate landscape. Few, however, fully understand it. Even fewer know how to articulate what it really is.

The term “culture” originated in the field of social anthropology in the early 20th century. Several anthropological studies were exploring “primitive” societies around the world and the differences they found were so great, the anthropologists needed a way to describe them. The term “culture” was coined as a means for categorizing, discussing, and documenting the unique qualities and distinct differences among specific human groups and communities. Culture is not bound by borders, and therefore is a term that can be used to describe any collection of people, whether it is a family unit, a regional community, or an entire nation.

The concept of “culture” was so intriguing that over time, people started using it to describe their companies and “what things are like around here.” Every organization holds certain beliefs and consequently behaves in certain ways. Without the concept of culture, there would be no concrete way to discuss the modus operandi that people live each day. Organizational culture provides the bridge to understand what, how, and why certain beliefs and behaviors triumph over others. Companies spend millions of dollars and expend countless efforts to improve performance before fully understudying why people behave the way they do, and a culture audit, well performed, can make improvement efforts more precise, efficient and sticky.

Many consulting firms have tried to over-engineer the concept of organizational culture and custom-create wholly business-like categories for defining it (e.g. H.R. Systems, or Career Development). While many of these concepts may be relevant, and even important, they are typically superficial and the essence of culture thus evades their narrow view. The key is to remember that culture is a social anthropological concept. At its core, it is a way to describe human beliefs and behavior. After all, people are still the heart of every company – so trying to describe culture by moving toward a more “MBA-ish” model will likely leave some gaps in true understanding.

FMG Leading’s view about exploring, understanding, and ultimately shaping organizational culture is that any organizational culture model should withstand the test of global application, in any society. In other words, you should be able to take an organizational culture assessment into a remote village on the far side of the world, and come out with a solid understanding about life in that village. If there are some categories that wouldn’t apply in a village, the assessment is too complicated, too specific, and probably doesn’t get at the core. The goal is to be able to say, “ah, I get it,” and then describe it to someone else so they get it as well.

Put it to the test: Choose your favorite culture model and go to a playground on a Saturday afternoon filled with young kids. Could you use your current model to diagnose and understand the culture there? Probably not entirely.

Organizational culture is rooted in anthropology and therefore in its study, this connection cannot be overlooked. Losing this link with anthropology creates a risk of missing a fundamental fact: organizational culture is actually about people, not organizations.

For more information about how FMG Leading can help define and transform your organizational culture, call 714-628-2900714-628-2900 or visit