Podcast: What IC pros need to know about culture

How often do you talk about culture in your organisation?

It’s a phrase you’ll probably hear a lot in your Comms career.

You’ve probably spoken about culture with your leaders, colleagues and team.

In this latest episode of my Candid Comms podcast I cover:

  • What organisational culture means
  • Definitions I use
  • How to define culture
  • What you need to know about culture
  • How to use models
  • Practical things to try.

The episode is available to listen to now. You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean. Or you can listen below.


Thank you to my Producer Debbie West and the Seren Creative team for producing this episode.

Do let me know what you’re taking away as a result of listening. You’re welcome to comment below or find me online @AllThingsIC on Twitter, @rachelallthingsic on Instagram or Rachel Miller on LinkedIn.

You can also subscribe to my monthly email newsletter, The Water Cooler, via this page.

Candid Comms Season Three Episode Six

Transcript of this episode

You’re listening to the Candid Comms podcast with Rachel Miller. Join me every week for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things, internal communication-related. Hello and welcome to the show. In today’s episode, our topic is going to be organisational culture and you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do and one thing to think about. Are you ready? Let’s get started.

When I say the phrase organisational culture, what immediately springs to mind for you? Organisational culture is a phrase that you’ll probably hear a lot in your career, whether you’ve just started out in internal comms or you’ve been working in the field for decades. I am certain that you will have had conversations with your employees, with your team members, with your leaders about culture.

So, the purpose of this episode is to help you get some clarity and help you articulate what culture is. I’m going to dive straight in with what you need to know. Now, a number of times, throughout the series of Candid Comms, I have talked about culture and whenever I have, I’ve used a definition by Deal and Kennedy, which is from 1982, which is culture is the way things are done around here.

Further reading: Deal, T.E. and Kennedy, A.A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life.

Now, I like that. That does what it says on the tin for me, it’s very straightforward, very simple, and it helps create a frame within which you can determine, well, what are the way we do things around here? What does that mean for our organisation? When I’m working with All Things IC’s clients and the topic of culture comes up. More often than not, I will use that phrase and say, “What do you mean when you talk about culture?”

When I talk about culture, I use the phrase, this is the way we do things around here. And then we drill down into, well, exactly what does that mean for this particular organisation?

So, if I was to ask you that question, in terms of what does culture mean for your organisation?

What is the way that you do things around here? What would your answer be?

What would you say? I encourage you to think about that for your own organisation. Something you need to know is the definition of culture for your own organisation. Another phrase that I use or theory that I use is from Edgar Schein.

Further reading: Organisational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein, 1992.

Now he wrote a fantastic book back in 1992, and its organisational culture and leadership, which is quite hard to get hold of. But if you can get a copy, it is well worth it. And top tip, if you look on Google Scholar, if you just search on Google Scholar for Edgar Schein’s book, organisational culture and leadership, 1992, then you should be able to see a fair amount of it. I’m going to share with you a definition from a more recent publication from Schein, where he defines organisational culture as:

“The basic tacit assumptions about how the world is and ought to be, that a group of people share and that determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and their overt behaviour.”

I really like that as a definition, I wonder whether that resonates for you is, “The basic tacit assumptions about how the world is and ought to be, that a group of people share and that determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and their overt behaviour.”

I wonder what that is for your organisation, could you define that? What are those assumptions that your colleagues share, that your employees share and what determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and overt behaviour?

The reason I like Schein’s work when it comes to culture is because he defined three levels of culture. You have your basic underlying assumptions, so there normally unconscious that’s taken for granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings. So sometimes in my experience, that’s things like the way that we feel like we treated as an employee. For example, it’s just taken for granted.

Sometimes I find this when I’m auditing organisations, where there’s this basic underlying assumption, in terms of how we treat our frontline workers versus how we treat our head office workers, for example.

I wonder if that’s true for your organisation. If you had to define that and you had to articulate that, what are the basic underlying assumptions? Things that are just taken for granted beliefs or perception. Now note here, this beliefs and perception doesn’t always mean the reality.

Come and learn about internal communication face-to-face with Rachel at the All Things IC Hub. 2022 dates are now available.

The second part is the espoused values. And that’s things like your strategies, your goals, your philosophies inside your organisation. So if it’s espoused, for me when I’m looking at that, is things where you are justifying what you are doing. So therefore, it could be things like the values of your organisation. It could be things like the far stretching, far reaching aspirational goals and visions that you have as an organisation, where you have these grand statements or these grand visions, where everybody thinks them, and everybody says them and everybody knows them. Or they do, if we’ve done our jobs.

And sometimes that’s literally, you see that around an organisation or you hear that around an organisation. The third one is artefacts, and this is one of the ones that I find most interesting actually, when I’m looking at organisational culture and I’m helping to analyse culture for an All Things IC client, I’m looking at the physical representation of culture. So normally, that’s things that are visual, organisational structures or processes. And sometimes, it’s things like we all wear a certain uniform, or we have a certain color that we use on our office walls, for example, where there’s a physical representation, a physical artifact that unites the organisation. I remember years ago, actually, I was going to share something with you. I remember years ago going to visit the office of Starbucks and it was in West London. And I remember going to visit their office and having a conversation with their comms manager there.

She was telling me all about the Starbucks culture, which is absolutely fascinating. And I remember as we were talking, she was showing me the third place. So in the ethos of Starbucks, they talk about having your first place, and your second place and your third place. So you have home, you have work, and then you have a third place. And, that’s what their intention is for their coffee shops, where it’s a third place that you go, it could be you’re there and it’s a mix of personal and professional, but it’s a third place to go. Third place in its own right, is a whole separate mindset comms friends and a whole separate theory. I’ll include a link to that, actually, if you’re interested in finding out more about third place and third space. But when I went to the Starbucks office, and I was learning all about the culture and being shown what it looks like in reality, it was fascinating to me. Because inside the head office, they had a fully functioning Starbucks, as one perhaps would expect.

I was told how every employee is trained to be a barista, so everyone knows, regardless of your role, whether you are in HR or if you’re in finance, or if you’re on the commercial team, you will know how to pour a cup of coffee. And everybody had a passport, where when you join the organisation, you learn how to make certain cups or certain drinks, and then it’s ticked off. And I remember the conversation I had with Vikki and she was saying to me, “We have this mindset within the organisation that we look through the eyes of the Siren,” so the Siren is like the mermaid on their logo. And she said, “The intention is that every single time you go into a Starbucks store, wherever it is in the world, there’s a consistency there, where the shelves are laid out in a very, very familiar way.”

“So whether you are at the store in Sydney, or Seattle or London, it will feel familiar to you.” Now drilling down into that, it’s because the artifacts are the same. So when you look at them as a collective or individual, they all look the same, they’re joined together. There’s certain artwork, there’s certain colors.

Now we do that in our organisations, and I think one of the fascinating things for me in thinking about 2020 and 2021 in particular, was the fact with all started to work from home more and there was this sense that we’ve lost our cultural identity as an organisation. Part of that, I think is because you don’t have the exposure to the physical artifacts. Now, some of that, I mean, it’s broadened that, it’s about belonging and all sorts of things. But part of that is because people design their workplaces around their cultural indicators, so things like the artifacts, where you might have certain colors on the walls or you might have, I mean, you could go extreme comms friends and have slides like they do at Google.

But, it’s all about understanding how important are those things to our culture. How do these basic underlying assumptions, espoused values and artifacts, how do they impact the culture? And I like to put that whole mindset in with Deal and Kennedy. So, I like to look at what’s the way we do things around here, what are our basic under underlying assumptions, our espoused values and our artifacts. So I want you to know that for your organisation, and then I want you to test it.

So something I want you to do as a result of listening to this episode of the Candid Comms podcast is to write that down, grab an notebook, fire up a fresh document and write that down.

Describe the culture of your organisation. Imagine that you and I were having a conversation and I said to you:

  • Well, what are your basic underlying assumptions?
  • What is it that your employees take for granted?
  • What are their taken for granted beliefs?
  • What are their unconscious things that they think, and they feel and they say about the organisation
  • What are your espoused values?
  • What are your strategies?
  • What are your goals?
  • What are your philosophies?
  • What are your espoused justifications?

Then the third part are the artefacts. So, “What are the visual organisational structures and processes?” Sometimes they can be a little bit hard to decipher, that’s why I go down the route of literally, what can I see that unites and connects an organisation? So, that’s why I want you to know. I want you to know some of the theory that’s around and there’s plenty more when it comes to a culture, but they’re two in particular that I really like.

I like them because of the simplicity, and I like them because they’re actionable. The key bit for me with communications theory is how you translate that into reality. So sometimes, I do a lot of reading around organisational culture, around all sorts, all sorts of topics when it comes to internal comms. But what works for me is keeping things simple. And when you’re working with other people inside your organisation, if you’re working with your stakeholders, and you’re working on cultural projects or cultural change, my goodness me, the easier you can make it to understand it, in terms of simplicity and language, the more chance we’ve got of it being successful. The second part of our conversation today is something that I want you to do. And I’m going to include a few examples in the show notes, allthingsic.com/podcast. But what I want you to do, is I want you to imagine that you’ve been asked to produce a cultural playbook for your organisation, so don’t freak out.

Cultural playbook examples

So a cultural playbook, just to bust the jargon on that, because we do love a bit of jargon in comms, which doesn’t help anybody, so let’s not do that. A cultural playbook is sometimes given to new hires. Sometimes it’s given to people before they join an organisation. And it’s essentially, it’s a brochure, if you like and sometimes it’s a website and sometimes interactive PDFs. Sometimes it’s actually a video, but the aim of an organisational playbook in my mind, it’s a window into your world, a window into your culture, this is the way we do things around here, which you now know is Deal and Kennedy.

But I want to see, when I look at an organisation’s cultural playbook, I should be able to see who you are, what you do, how you work. And ideally, I should be able to get a sense of that through the eyes and the voices of your employees.

So a fantastic cultural playbook for me, is written from the perspective of employees. It’s not just about, this is the way we, as leaders, do things. No, I mean, oh, it can be. You could do it that way, but I don’t think it’s as interesting if I’m honest with you. I think it’s far more powerful and far more relatable. If you are an employee about to join an organisation and you see peer-to-peer communication, which we know from things like the Edelman Trust Barometer, is the most trusted, most credible, I’ll put a link to the barometer in the show notes.

Further reading: Edelman Trust Barometer.

But we know that peer-to-peer communication is super powerful, it’s super credible and it’s super trusted. It’s people like you are doing things like this. Now that’s a great mindset, if you’re trying to pull together a cultural playbook. Now, the reason people would have a cultural playbook could be to attract people into the organisation, it could be to show that window on the world, show that window into their culture to say, “Come and join us, it’s great here.”

Or it could be that you are trying to go for an investment or funding. You’re trying to get people to support the organisation financially, perhaps. And therefore, you want to be able to show this is who we are, what we do, how we work, how we show up in the world. I wonder whether you have a cultural playbook. I’d love to see yours, if you do, please do feel free to get in touch with me. Why not Tweet me @allthingsic, find me on Instagram @rachelallthingsic or look me up on LinkedIn under Rachel Miller. I’d love to see whether you have a cultural playbook in place. If you don’t, I wonder whether that’s something that you could consider, but be really clear what’s the problem that you are trying to solve by putting together a cultural playbook.

Sometimes I encourage my clients to put together a playbook, because the culture feels really ambiguous and it’s causing quite a bit of tension.

I wonder whether that feels right for your organisation, whether there’s a sense of, well, we are not quite sure who owns culture and we’re not quite sure where it sits. Is it an HR thing? Is it a comms thing? Is it a commercial thing? My answer is a business thing. Everybody has a responsibility for the culture of an organisation. There’s no point in having a comms team coming up with a beautiful definition and articulation of this is the way we do things around here. And it’s underpinned, and supported by things like a tone of voice guide, for example, or a glossary to bust some of the jargon.

If you’ve listened to my episode about setting standards in internal comms a bit earlier in season three, you would’ve heard me talk through brilliant basics and talking about a checklist, in terms of these are sorts of things to have in place inside your organisation.

Further reading: How to create brilliant basics – found in the setting standards episode of Candid Comms.

Candid Comms

A lot of those, if you listen to the episode, have a look back at your notes if you made any, and look at the notes that you made about what you have in place and see what relates to culture, see what helps you underpin and reinforce your culture. And I’m going to hazard a guess here, if it feels like everything is very ambiguous with your culture, nothing is really determined and nothing is really defined. And you don’t have things in place, like a tone of voice guide or a style guide, could it be that it would be really helpful to do that?

I wonder what difference it would make if you are able to really define, and then refine your culture, in terms of these are the things that we hold important to our organisation. These are the things that make us special and unique. Now, you can’t just have one cultural playbook that would fit every organisation. It just wouldn’t work like that. In the show notes, at allthingsic.com/podcast, I’ll share some examples with you.

Cultural playbook examples

If you’re listening to this thinking, “Oh gosh, that is an another a thing to add to my to-do list, thank you, Rachel.” Sorry about that. But it can then really help you, particularly if you’re going through things like mergers and acquisitions or organisational change, because I find if you have a really clear articulation of your culture, it helps you to do your inductions., For example, when you’re welcoming new into your organisation, you’re able to say, “This is the way that we do things around here.”

And also going to the extreme, when you have disciplinaries, for example, and you have disciplinary procedures, where the behaviors have been broken inside your organisation, where things just aren’t working very well, sometimes it’s because people aren’t cultural fits. And we talk about that quite a lot within the world of business, but we rarely actually drill down and really define what we actually mean by that.

So for your organisation, something I want you to do is really think about how do we define what our culture is, and then test that. So you might write something, if you are in a team, or if you have some stakeholders who you’re working on projects together, get them to write down our culture is… And, get them to write that down. What do they say? What do you say? Is there any disconnect between what you say and what you do as an organisation, also known as an integrity gap? Or is there a sense of, this is the way that we do things, but the reality is very different.

You need to test it. The reason being, very often I find working in the wonderful world of internal communication, we have access to all people at all levels of an organisation and we can be exposed to quite high level conversations about quite chunky topics like culture.

But unless it makes sense for people with their boots on the ground, unless it makes sense for our train drivers, and bus drivers, and our medical staff and the people who are across different various levels of the organisation, doing different jobs, it won’t make sense for all. It has to make sense for everybody. So define your culture and test it, in terms of this is how we are defining our culture. Does it make sense across the organisation? If not, why not? What’s missing? There is a lot there. We are going to take a short break and when we come back, I’m going to leave you with one thing to think about.

All Things IC Inner Circle

Welcome back. In the final part of today’s episode, I’m going to encourage you to think about who is responsible for culture inside your organisation. I mentioned it just before the break, but in particular, I want you to think about champions. Now, there’s various forms that champions can take inside an organisation, they could be, it’s a somebody’s whole role. It could be that you have culture champions in place. If you do, are they really clear what their role is? I really hope that you are nodding as you’re listening to this. I really hope you’re going, “Yes, we’ve got them.” And “Yes, it’s really clear what their role is.” Excellent. Well done, if that’s the case for you. For me, that’s not always the case. Whenever I uncover there are culture champions inside an organisation, I always want to know more about them. I’m curious to know how were they recruited, what do they do day-to-day? It 100% of somebody’s role? Or is that something they do off the side of their desk? Is it something that’s 10% of their role or 50% of their role?

When you work with culture champions, the good mindset for me is these people are here to uphold the way we do things around here. So, they’re calling out poor behavior, they’re help the organisation understand where there’s a gap between its intention, the way it wants to communicate, the way it wants to be as an organisation. And when actually, it’s falling short. Sometimes I find that cultural champions, particularly in the last four or five years, I would say, cultural champions, more often than not, are embedded within networks. If you have networks inside your organisation, there’s probably a variety of different formats for different types of groups, so you may have working parents and carers, for example, there may be a network for them.

Or maybe networks are determined by gender, or sexuality or types of job even. It’s vast how many different networks there are inside our organisations and rightly so. And, I find that cultural champions can very often be embedded inside those sorts of networks. So, I wonder if that’s true for your organisation. Do you have cultural champions in place? Is it clear what their role is? If you don’t, if you’ve never thought about before, then all the things that we’ve talked about in today’s episode will help you get organised. If you’re able to define your culture and define the definition of culture, one of the best ways I know to do that is to ask champions to get involved and ask people around you for their opinion, because it has to make sense as we’ve already talked about in today’s episode.

When I think about champions of culture, I have to think about leaders as well. It’s no good just having the most amazingly engaged, switched on, interested group of employees at multiple locations in your business at multiple levels who’ve been there for varying lengths of time, if you don’t have leadership, accountability and role modeling happening inside your organisation. If it is set up like that, where you just have these amazing people having conversations, it can just feel like you don’t actually get anywhere and the conversations don’t go anywhere. You need to have ownership at a senior level, in order to really champion. Because if the way we do things around here is a bit broken actually, and it needs a real investment of time, money and effort with everybody working very intentionally inside the organisation to help fix the culture, then you have to have senior level endorsement, and leadership and advocacy.

If not, it can just feel like we’re not going anywhere, and getting anywhere and making any progress. So, I wonder how good your leaders are at champion the culture of organisation. If it’s really clear how you want to be as an organisation or how you need to be as an organisation, then what happens if people don’t uphold your culture? What are the consequences? I’m going to share with you an example from my own family, so I have three young children. I’ve not really talked about them very much on the podcast, but that’s because this isn’t a podcast about me being a Mummy, but I have three young children. I have a nine-year-old daughter, and seven-year-old twin sons. And, we talk a lot about values and beliefs. And if I look at those three levels of culture from Edgar Schein, there are some definite basic underlying assumptions, things that are unconscious that are taken for granted beliefs.

There are espoused values and there are certainly artifacts, in terms of the way we operate as a family. Now a couple of years ago, we moved house and I decided I wanted to really define the way we are as a family. And part of that for me, and we talk about behavior a lot inside organisations and I talk about behaviour a lot inside my own household. And, I decided to create the Miller Family Rules.

Now, this lives next to my front door and you go past it every single day, unless we’re in lockdown, but we’re not going to talk about that. Every day, you walk past the poster, which has the Miller Family Rules. It’s a poster I have made and I had it framed. And on there, it’s aspirations in terms of how we want to be as a family. So, there’s things in there about how you treat each other, about how you spend time each other. There’s things in there about behaviours.

So being kind for example is up there, it’s a really core part of the way that we work as a family and the way that we think as a family, super, super important for me. So I realised that rather than just keep saying be kind all the time, I wanted to create an artefact, I to have a physical representation of the culture that I’m trying to nurture, and my husband and I are trying to nurture inside our own household. I believe that what happens inside is reflected outside. I say that at the end of every single podcast episode, and it’s something that’s a really important ethos for me in the way that I work, in the way that I live. And, I’m really conscious of the fact that if I want to have a really good culture and environment for my children to grow up in, I need to be able to articulate it.

I need to be able to communicate it well with them. So when I created the rules, it wasn’t me just saying, “Right, here’s the culture, this is the way we do things around here,” and putting it up on the wall. I did it by working with the children, and talking about how do we want to be as a family? How do you want to be as individuals? And, these are things that we uphold for ourselves. These are our standards, these are our values, these are our beliefs; and therefore, these are our behaviours.

Now I didn’t write them like that, I had them designed in a poster which listed them all out, but it didn’t say these are the beliefs, these are the values. It wasn’t as serious as that, if you like. It was much more appropriate language for the age that my children were, particularly when I shared it with them for the first time, two years ago.

But we co-created it together and we talked about, “Well, what feels right?” “Which are the phrases that resonate with us and how do we want to be?”

Now, you know where I’m going with this. If this episode has made you think about your organisational culture and think, “Actually, do you know what?” “It’s not clear inside my company, inside my organisation.” There’s a real tension, people don’t really understand what culture is. Or people talk about culture, but they never actually define it and they never actually give us standards in ways that we can uphold the culture by saying, “This is the way that we do things around here and here are the consequences if we break them.” So if this episode has made you think about that for your own organisation, think about who you can co-create your cultural standards and definitions with. If you do have cultural champions in place, fabulous, revisit this conversation with them, because hopefully they’ve had it already.

And if you do have a cultural playbook, check that it’s still relevant. I’ve had two examples recently, where I’ve been looking at an organisation’s internal communication artefacts and materials, there’s that word again, artefact. I’ve uncovered within their cultural playbook, that actually the way we do things around here isn’t represented inside their cultural playbook. Because actually, there was no photographs of employees working from home, for example. There was lots of photographs of their amazing office space, but we needed to update that photography, because actually, it didn’t reflect the way that we currently do things. I hope you enjoyed this episode. There was a lot in there, in terms of actions that I want you to take, but I do want you to think about what feels right for your organisation. I encourage you to look at your notes, if you are out and about, or walking the dog or in the bath, come back to this episode and just do the exercise I shared with you at the beginning about defining what culture means for your organisation.

Take that to your next team meeting, take that to your next one-to-one with your manager and ask them how they talk about the way you do things in your organisation. And compare them and contrast them, see if there’s any difference between them and understand why that is. It may be your perception, or it may be that they’re exposed to other conversations at a higher level of the organisation, where they know that actually, there is that integrity gap, that disconnect between what we say and what we do.

I would love to know how you get on with thinking about your organisation’s culture. Do let me know how you get on. You can get in touch with me, tweet me @allthingsic. You can find me on Instagram, Rachel All Things IC. Look me up on LinkedIn, Rachel Miller. And you can find the show notes at allthingsic.com/podcast.

And remember, what happens inside is reflected outside.

See you again soon.


Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on the All Things IC blog 8 January 2022.


  1. […] reading: What IC pros need to know about culture – published January […]

  2. […] Podcast: What IC pros need to know about culture. […]

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How can we help?

All Things IC helps practitioners around the globe increase their knowledge of internal communication.

There’s a variety of ways we can support you including trainingconsultancy and mentoring to boost your skills and confidence.

Or visit the shop to see everything we offer.

Who has hired All Things IC?

Clients say working with All Things IC leaves them feeling inspired, motivated, full of ideas and ready to turn plans into action.

We’re proud to have been invited to work with, and advise, some of the world’s leading brands.

Get in touch...

Would you like to work with All Things IC? Do get in touch below. Please note we only accept guest post ideas from in-house IC pros who have read the blogging guidelines.

Asking for advertising, back links or pitching services? We do not offer these and will not reply. Thank you.