Anthropologists have long known that the task of learning about a specific group’s culture–or the unique way they interact with each other and complete tasks–starts by asking individual members about what they value, their key relationships, and their history.
It is important to pay attention to the unique family business culture of a firm because culture is about identifying bedrock components of the business that are the functional equivalent of the core “bones” of a building (the foundation, beams, pilings, etc). And cultural traits in a family business tend to be simpler, outward manifestations of the more complex underpinnings that hold a family business together. These traits help define what it does and, more importantly, how it does it.
Identifying cultural traits in an organization is difficult if done from within the culture itself. For example, it’s been proven over and over again that the average American struggles to accurately identify much about “American culture”, beyond being independently minded. A careful observer from another country can easily describe some unique US traits: Highly patriotic, expectations around optimism, mobility, etc. In fact, not only is this struggle true of inhabitants of any national culture, it is also true for people living and working within organizations as well, including the family firm.
Being able to describe these core parts of a family business culture is important as the firm grows and moves into subsequent generations because it helps us understand who we are, how we like to do things and what makes us successful as a business and as a family. It also helps us identify where we might be bumping up against conflict that challenges that success and this is where the real value lies in understanding your organization’s culture.