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There Are Four Types of Company Culture – Which one is yours?

The type of culture defines you shapes leadership, mindsets, and behavior. Choose yours wisely.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 1, 2021

Map out your workplace culture with The Culture Identity Assessment Tool

Each organizational culture type is unique. It's defined by specific leadership styles, mindsets, and behaviors. The Culture Identity Assessment Tool (CIAT) helps map out the type of culture of your organization, identifying gaps between the current and ideal state and across cultural dimensions.

Mapping out your organization's culture is the first step in the culture design process. The Culture Identity Assessment Tool helps assess where you are and where you want to want to. It clarifies what's expected from everyone to evolve your organizational culture in the right direction.

In this post, I will share:

- The four types of culture

- Pros and cons of each type – plus, implications

- How to assess the gaps across your organization

- Two exercises: Map your culture and your personal preferences

Understanding the Four Types of Workplace Culture

There are four types of workplace cultures. Each begets unique leaderships styles, mindsets, and behaviors. Identifying your primary type of culture will help define if expectations are aligned with behavior – or the other way around.  

The CIAT was developed to provide a quantitative assessment of culture and help understand how each of the building blocks of the Culture Design Canvas is performing.

The four types of culture are the result of two dimensions:

  • Internal focus and Past-orientation - or - External focus and Future-orientation
  • Predictability and Individualistic -or - Adaptability and Collaborative

Internal-External axis

Internal focus: Organizations focusing inward on strong interpersonal relationships, coordination, process, politics, etc. Usually, an inner focus translates into an orientation toward the past: the way we've always done things here – traditions, norms, and processes are highly revered.

External focus: Companies looking at the evolving market dynamics, exploring the latest technology, analyzing their competitors, anticipating future customers' needs, etc. Typically, an external focus translates into future orientation: what's possible? – new opportunities and solutions.

Both internal and external attention are needed to be successful in the long-run. However, you are looking at what's the dominant preference. You have to choose whether you prioritize looking inside or outside - you cannot do both at the same time.

Predictability - Adaptability axis

Predictability: Companies that organize for stability. They appreciate structure, planning, goal-setting, management, and tools that would provide reliability. Their mindset is shaped by a desire to predict, manage, and control reality.  

Adaptability: Organizations operating under the belief that reality can't be controlled; you must continually adapt. They possess an agile and flexible approach. Speed and adaptation are more important than structure, processes, and plans.

Similar to the other dimensions, you must prioritize which aspect you emphasize. Or, in other words, where would you invest the time, energy, and money?

The intersection of both axes creates four types of organizational cultures: Tribal Culture, Fearful Culture, Aggressive Culture, and Fearless Culture.

The framework is descriptive, not prescriptive. As I will explain later, each type and culture has its pros and cons when taken to the extreme. Your secondary type of culture can help balance the predominant one. Most importantly, your culture should match leadership style and behaviors.

Note: The CIAT model was adapted from Cameron's and Quinn's "Competing Values Framework." Our survey uses 21 questions instead of 10 and the algorithm helps connect the results to the different building blocks of the Culture Design Canvas, allowing you to understand which are working – or not.

Also, we tested several names until we landed on these four. We wanted to emphasize the key emotions associated with each culture type.

Tribal Culture

This is a friendly working environment where cultural fit is crucial. People share a lot in common and working together feels like being part of an extended family.

Leaders act like coaches who care that people belong and fit in.

The mindset of the organization promotes collaboration, participation, and affiliation.

Behaviors are about building social relationships. The culture is people-oriented: decision-making is democratic or by consensus.

Employees in Tribal Cultures are afraid of not fitting in, being left behind, or conflict that might harm interpersonal relationships. Employees are not afraid of being themselves at work.

Tribal Cultures are culture-centric, like Airbnb, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, or IKEA.

Fearful Culture

This is a top-down working environment where following the rules is crucial. Titles define people's identity and authority.

Leaders focus on organizing and distributing work by providing clear instructions or marching orders.

The mindset of this organization is command-and-control.

The behaviors tend to be bureaucratic, following rigid processes. The organization emphasizes efficiency over innovation. Decisions are made based on power and authority, not necessarily knowledge or facts.

Employees in Fearful Cultures are afraid of making mistakes, speaking truth to power, and their bosses. They are not afraid of predictability and structure.

Fearful Cultures are authority-centric, like the government, large non-profit organizations, financial institutions, and pharmaceuticals.

Fearless Culture

This is an informal working environment where ideas rule. People are always looking for new solutions or new ways of doing things. They share the desire for the new, the latest, and the different.

Leaders are visionaries who shape the long-term dream with a focus on disruption and transformation, like Pixar or Apple.

The mindset of the organization encourages experimentation and innovation.

Experimental behaviors, taking risks, and thinking like an entrepreneur are welcomed. Creative Cultures are idea-centric.

Employees in Fearless Cultures are afraid of not being creative enough or being second to innovation. They are not afraid of taking risks and making mistakes.

Fearless Cultures promote collaborative creation, such as Pixar, Apple, or Atlassian.

Aggressive Culture

This is a competitive working environment where results are everything that matters. People share clear goals and ambitions.

Leaders are strategic and set the pace of the organization.

The mindset of the organization is highly competitive; everyone is expected to challenge everyone else.

Employees in aggressive cultures are afraid of not being sustained A performers (and being fired for that). They don't shy away from big challenges and ambitious goals.

Behaviors are mostly business-like and goal-oriented. Metrics play a crucial role; there's an obsession with high-performance. Competitive Cultures are results-centric, like Netflix, Bridgewater Associates, McKinsey, or Amazon.

four types of culture characteristics assessment tool

Culture Identity Assessment: Uncovering the Gaps

Unlike most culture surveys that assess the culture in terms of right or wrong, the CIAT provides a snapshot of your existing culture. Rather than giving your company a score, it presents an actionable view of your culture that will help you decide what you want to preserve, change, start, or accept.  

The CIAT culture profile uncovers:

1. The dominant and secondary types of culture

2. Performance across the 7 key cultural dimensions

3. Gaps across the organization

4. The cultural dimensions that need to be improved

5. The discrepancy between current and ideal culture

Every organization has a culture – either by default or design. One of our clients thought that their primary culture was Tribal. However, after conducting the survey across their 500+ employees, the results show that the dominant culture was Fearless and the secondary was Aggressive.

Digging deeper into the results, we uncovered a gap between the behavior senior leaders promoted and the ones middle managers displayed. While the first were trying to involve their direct reports involved in most decisions and encourage participation, the latter were rewarding people who took risks and defined aggressive goals without involving the broader staff.

culture identity assessment tool showcasing primary type of culture

The quantitative assessment measures seven cultural dimensions: Leadership, Alignment, Belonging, Psychological Safety, Rewarded Behavior, Agility, and Decision-Making. The overall culture is the result of a combination of all those dimensions.

Reviewing performance across each of them helps understand what's driving both the dominant and secondary culture, as well as the gaps across the organization.

In another organization, the results uncovered confusion around decision-making. Not only were there gaps across leadership, middle management, and staff, but the approach to making decisions was also unclear within each level.

Unfortunately, this is a critical element for most organizations. However, our experience consulting with clients shows that teams are not aligned on how to make decisions in most cases.

Use the assessment to understand, not to judge your culture.

The Culture Identity Assessment Tool is an actionable method to understand and improve your culture. You can use it to assess the culture of an organization or team, regardless of industry or size. Since its creation, we've been using it with startups, fast-growth companies, or teams within a larger organization.

Interested in assessing your team or company culture?

Schedule a demo call or complete the form to get a quote.

The Danger of Taking Your Company Culture to the Extremes

There's no ideal type of workplace culture. Pushy, aggressive cultures are usually perceived as outdated. However, both Amazon and Netflix prove this belief wrong. Also, although fearful cultures tend to be associated with old-fashioned, command-and-control management styles, many people like working in predictable and structured organizations.

Yes, I'm biased like everyone else – I prefer Fearless Cultures (not surprisingly, since my firm is called that way). However, my approach as a consultant is not to impose a model but to help organizations identify the one that works best for them. Success depends on being authentic – to match words with action.

My biggest push is to ensure that companies don't take their culture to the extreme. That's where each type of culture becomes unhealthy or toxic.  

As you can see on the chart below, each of the four types of company culture have some positive characteristics, but are also full of flaws when taken to the extreme. Tribal cultures can become cults, promoting groupthink and conflict avoidance. Aggressive cultures can become too harsh and ruthless, rewarding individualism rather than collaboration.

four types of culture assessment characteristics and dangers
Four Types of Culture: Characteristics and Problem when Taken to the Extreme

The chart above provides a snapshot of the key characteristics of each type of culture, as well as the issues that manifest when each is taken to the extremes.

That's why the secondary culture becomes so important. It helps balance the dominant one by providing more depth in specific cultural dimensions.

Take, for example, Apple and Pixar. Both have a dominant Fearless Culture. However, Apple's secondary culture has traditionally been aggressive – especially under Steve Jobs' leadership. Pixar's secondary culture is Tribal, promoting a strong sense of belonging and openness while punishing 'big egos.' The following chart serves as a cheat sheet to understand what happens when each type of culture skews higher in a particular cultural dimension. Reviewing results across the different elements helps determine which levers to pull to move the culture in the right direction.

Think about your current company culture – both dominant and secondary. What type of culture do you have? What are the gaps that you observe across different groups, levels, or geography? What could be driving the gap? Are there any particular cultural dimensions that are pulling your culture in the wrong direction?

Focus on your ideal culture. Discuss the desired culture and the journey. What type of culture do you want? What are the actions needed to get there?

Whether or not you do a quantitative or qualitative assessment, answering those questions upfront will help you contrast your expectations with reality.

Company culture brings out the best or worst in people.

There are four types of workplace culture. Understanding which type is yours drives clarity and defines whether or not your current culture is aligned with the one you want (ideal). It will also drive alignment, helping people understand what's expected from each of them – leaders and employees alike.

The CIAT is a tool that helps assess your culture. It's the first step of the culture mapping phase. To learn more about the entire culture design process, read this post.

Exercise 1: What Type of Culture Do You Have?

Share a blank copy of the matrix and ask team members to map the culture of their previous employers. This helps people better understand the different types of culture as well as the idea of primary and secondary.

Now ask the team to map the current company of your organization. Where would they place their company? Invite people to do this individually first. Then compare results and discuss the differences without imposing your view.

Once the team agrees on what the actual culture is, ask them to capture all the positive things about that type of culture and how it manifests. Do the same, but now focus on the negative sides.

Encourage the team to think about their ideal culture. Where would they like to be in one year from now? In three years? And what about five years for now?

What needs to happen to move the culture from current to ideal state? Use the 'cheat sheet' to reflect on each of the cultural dimensions – and which need to be tackled.

Start with your real culture. Make sure the team builds from what's currently in place, preserving what's working and improving what's not. However, also be mindful that some issues won't change and must be accepted as part of the culture.

There are no right or wrong quadrants. Some might look sexier than others, but being consistent with how your culture operates is more important. Some companies are really successful at operating in a top-down environment.

Also, don't confuse the culture with the outcome. Having a controlling culture doesn't mean that a company can't innovate, too. Most pharmaceutical companies operate in very regulated and process-fueled environments, yet are very innovative.

Similarly, don't confuse the culture with the business you're in. Netflix and Pixar are both in the entertainment business, which is creative by nature. However, Netflix has an aggressive culture, while Pixar has a fearless one.

The purpose of this exercise is to force people to understand the implications of choosing one space over the other, rather than seeing quadrants as either good or bad.

Exercise 2: In Which Culture Do You Thrive?

One of the most exciting things I've experienced is using the Culture Identity Assessment Tool to help people reflect on how culture affects their performance. This exercise creates awareness of that – participants realize in which type of culture they thrive and in which they don't.

As a leader, use this tool to reflect on your leadership style. Reflect – and map – the cultures of the different companies you worked at.

Use the following questions to help you reflect on how culture shapes your performance:

Which type of organizational culture gets the best out of you? Which culture feels more authentic and consistent with your values and purpose? Is your leadership style aligned with your current workplace culture?

As an employee, reflect on your current and previous jobs. Map out the company cultures of all the places where you've worked at – including your current company.

Invite team members to reflect on their own experience using the following questions:

Is there any commonality or trend? In which types of culture do you thrive? Is there any type of culture that really hinders your potential? Have you – consciously or not – adapted your style to the culture where you worked? How did that work?

Invite each teammate to share their own experience. Give everyone uninterrupted airtime to reflect and share their lessons. Connect what drives your team to build the culture everyone wants.

Four Types of Organizational Culture – Key Takeaways

There are four different types of company culture – each has pros and cons. The Culture Identity Assessment Tool is descriptive, not prescriptive. Don't aim for the ideal model but rather for the one that best works for your organization.

Assessing your culture with the Culture Identity Assessment Tool has many benefits:

1. It provides a clear picture of your current culture

2. It's quick to administer and simple to understand

3. It's quantitative: you can compare dominant and secondary cultures

4. It's validated and used across different types of organizations

5. It measures culture across concrete cultural dimensions

If you need help facilitating a culture assessment exercise with your team or want to use the CIAT quantitative survey to assess your current culture, reach out to schedule a call.

Download the Workplace Culture Type Canvas

Understand The Four Leadership Styles – And How to Find Yours

Becoming a Fearless Leaders: How to Lead from a Place of Courage

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