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

Each type of organizational culture defines a specific leadership style, mindset, and behavior. Understand which one works best for your organization.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 22, 2020

Map out your workplace culture with The Culture Type Canvas

Each organizational culture type is defined by specific leadership styles, mindsets, and behaviors. Mapping out your organization culture is the first step toward designing your culture; it helps clarify what’s expected from everyone.

Before a company develops a new product, it must define its business strategy. Will it compete by price or by differentiation? Will the company focus on a narrow segment or a broader market?

The same approach applies to culture design; before you use the Culture Design Canvas, you must first understand the different types of culture and in which space your company can and will play – you cannot be everything at the same time.

There are four types of workplace cultures, considering the following two axes:

  • Internal focus and integration - or - External focus and differentiation
  • Stability and control -or - Flexibility and discretion

The intersection of both axes creates four types of organizational cultures: Tribal Culture, Fearful Culture, Aggressive Culture, and Fearless Culture. Every organization has its own mix of these four types of workplace culture.

Note: I adapted this framework from Cameron’s and Quinn’s organizational culture model built upon the “Competing Values Framework.” Our quantitative tools measures seven cultural dimensions that are connected with the Culture Design Canvas, identifying which building blocks you need to improve.

Understanding the Four Types of Workplace Culture

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 a family.

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

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

Behaviors are about building social relationships. The culture is people-oriented: decision-making is democratic or by consensus. Tribal Cultures are culture-centric, like Airbnb or Zappos.

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. Controlled Cultures are authority-centric, like the government – or Martha Stewart.

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.

Aggressive Culture

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

Leaders are strategic and set the pace of the organization.

The mindset of the organization is extremely competitive; everyone is challenging everyone else.

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 or Amazon.

Exercise: Map Out Your Workplace Culture

Share a blank copy of the matrix and ask the team to map different company cultures and see which fits where. This helps people better understand the different types of culture. Also, while doing this exercise, participants will realize that – though the matrix has four clear quadrants- there are different shades of gray when it comes to plotting a company.

Now ask the team to map their current state; where would they place their company? It’s more interesting to have people do this individually first and then collectively. This will spark interesting conversations and allow people to conclude.

Let the team reflect on the implications of operating where they are. Also, provide some time for them to visualize the future state; where would they like to be in a few years from now?

Focus on your real culture, not your ideal one. You cannot expect to turn a top-down culture into a creative one overnight. Remind the team to dream big but be realistic, too.

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 many are very innovative.

Similarly, don’t confuse the culture with the business you are 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.

In Which Type of Company Culture Do You Thrive?

I’ve been using this tool with our clients for over four years now to help them map the current culture, design the future state, and uncover gaps. If you need help facilitating this exercise with your team, or want to use our quantitative tool, email us and let's discuss how we can help you.

One of the most exciting things I’ve discovered is how this matrix helps people reflect on their personal experience, too –– not everyone thrives at the same kind of culture.

As a leader, use this tool to reflect on your leadership style. Which type of organization culture gets the best out of you? 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. 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 at? How did that work?

Four Types of Company Culture: the Danger of Taking It 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 companies still succeed within these parameters.

As I consultant, I have my preference (not surprisingly, my firm is called Fearless Culture). However, I learned through my practice that is more effective to help organizations build – and improve – from where they are (their real culture) than trying to impose a model as the perfect one. Also, the biggest issues happen when you take your culture to the extremes.

As you can see on the chart below, each of the four types of company culture has some positive characteristics, but are also full of flaws when you take them to the extremes. Tribal cultures can become a cult, encourage groupthink, and avoid conflict. Aggressive cultures can become too harsh, ruthless, and promote individualism.

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

The Culture Type Canvas is a tool that helps strategize your culture before moving into the design phase. To learn more about the culture design process, read this post.

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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