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Elements of Culture


Explanations > Culture > Elements of Culture

Artifacts | Stories | Rituals | Heroes | Symbols | Beliefs | Attitudes | Rules | So what?


What are the visible attributes of culture? What are the elements that you can point to and say 'that is there to show and sustain this culture' ?


Artifacts are the physical things that are found that have particular symbolism for a culture. They may even be endowed with mystical properties. The first products of a company. Prizes won in grueling challenges and so on are all artifacts.

Artifacts can also be more everyday objects, such as the bunch of flowers in reception. They main thing is that they have special meaning, at the very least for the people in the culture. There may well be stories told about them.

The purpose of artifacts are as reminders and triggers. When people in the culture see them, they think about their meaning and hence are reminded of their identity as a member of the culture, and, by association, of the rules of the culture.

Artifacts may also be used in specific rituals. Churches do this, of course. But so also do organizations.

Stories, histories, myths, legends, jokes

Culture is often embedded and transmitted through stories, whether they are deep and obviously intended as learning devices, or whether they appear more subtly, for example in humor and jokes.

A typical story includes a bad guy (often shady and unnamed) and a good guy (often the founder or a prototypical cultural member). There may also be an innocent. The story evolves in a classic format, with the bad guy being spotted and vanquished by the good guy, with the innocent being rescued and learning the greatness of the culture into the bargain.

Sometimes there stories are true. Sometimes nobody knows. Sometimes they are elaborations on a relatively simple truth. The power of the stories are in when and how they are told, and the effect they have on their recipients. 

Rituals, rites, ceremonies, celebrations

Rituals are processes or sets of actions which are repeated in specific circumstances and with specific meaning.

They may be used in such as rites of passage, such as when someone is promoted or retires. They may be associated with company events such as the release of a new event. They may also be associated with everyday events such as Christmas.

Whatever the circumstance, the predictability of the rituals and the seriousness of the meaning all combine to sustain the culture.


Heroes in a culture are named people who act as prototypes, or idealized examples, by which cultural members learn of the correct or 'perfect' behavior.

The classic heroes are the founders of the organization, who are often portrayed as much whiter and perfect than they actually are or were. Heroes may also be such as the janitor who tackled a burglar or a customer-service agent who went out of their way to delight a customer. In such stories they symbolize and teach people the ideal behaviors and norms of the culture.

Symbols and symbolic action

Symbols, like artifacts, are things which act as triggers to remind people in the culture of its rules, beliefs, etc. They act as a shorthand way to keep people aligned.

Symbols can also be used to indicate status within a culture. This includes clothing, office decor and so on. Status symbols signal to others to help them use the correct behavior with others in the hierarchy. They also lock in the users of the symbols into prescribed behaviors that are appropriate for their status and position.

There may be many symbols around an organization, from pictures of products on the walls to the words and handshakes used in greeting cultural members from around the world.

Beliefs, assumptions and mental models

An organization and culture will often share beliefs and ways of understanding the world. This helps smooth communications and agreement, but can also become fatal blinkers that blind everyone to impending dangers.


Attitudes are the external displays of underlying beliefs that people use to signal to other people of their membership. This includes internal members (look: I'm conforming to the rules. Please don't exclude me).

Attitudes also can be used to give warning, such as when a street gang member eyes up a member of the public. By using a long hard stare, they are using national cultural symbolism to indicate their threat.

Rules, norms, ethical codes, values

The norms and values of a culture are effectively the rules by which its members must abide, or risk rejection from the culture (which is one of the most feared sanctions known). They are embedded in the artifacts, symbols, stories, attitudes, and so on.

So what?

So notice these things, and how people react around them. Beware of transgressing cultural norms unless you deliberately want do to this to symbolize something (such as 'I do not agree with this').

Cultural rules are also very powerful levers. If you question whether people are conforming, they will assert that they are (and likely be concerned by your questioning their loyalty). They can also be used as safety bolt-holes where people will head for when threatened.


Brown, A. Organizational Culture, Pitman, London, 1995

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