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September 9, 2021

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Rose Mercier

Organizational Culture and Policies: Where is the Connection?

Sometimes when boards start to develop Executive Limitations, they want to make sure their policies address organizational culture. Where might policies say it is unacceptable if the organization’s operations are inconsistent with our organizational culture? This question always starts an interesting conversation. How exactly is the board defining its organization’s culture? It’s a pretty big topic. It’s easy to get lost in researching the subject. This blog is not an exhaustive look at organizational culture. Rather, it offers a way for a board to think about how it might address organizational culture in its policies.

Culture should be important to a board. It is, after all, a crucial factor in the long-term effectiveness of organizations1. Culture is commonly described as “the way things are around here” – not something that is easy for a board to get a handle on. It is a composite of core values, underlying assumptions, collective memories – something that boards, staff and organization members or volunteers carry in their heads. Culture defines  the unwritten guidelines for how to behave in the organization.

Maybe you are beginning to appreciate why writing policies that address culture is not quite as simple as it seems at first glance. Culture is most obvious in the ways people in the organization treat each other and the type of leadership that is most common. Talking about these two topics is a good place for a board to start its conversation about the desired organizational culture and then ask questions such as these:

  • What behaviours would be unacceptable with respect to treatment of staff? Treatment of members or clients? Investment of our reserve?
  • In what ways could the board’s processes or board leadership be inconsistent with the desired organizational culture? Do we value formality? Transparency? Openness of decision-making?

Discussion regarding these questions can help surface risks to the organization’s culture which the board wants its policies to address. Using questions such as those posed above can help a board connect organizational culture to its policies. The discussion should enable the board to specify in its Governance Process policies the leadership behaviour it expects of itself because it reinforces what it values about the organizational culture. As well, the board should be better able to specify in its Executive Limitations policies conditions and actions that are unacceptable because they inconsistent with the organizational culture.

We work with boards to develop policies that help to protect, support or, as needed, shift organizational culture so the organization can achieve its Ends. If your board is wrestling with this question, let us know.


[1] Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn. “Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework”. (John Wiley & Sons, 2011) p.

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