Defining the “Unwritten Rules of Engagement”

 In Branding, Employee Engagement, Leadership, News, Sales & Marketing, Team Building, The 12 Archetypes
(as it appeared in PSMJ, May 16, 2016, Vol 43, Issue 5.)

What is corporate culture and why should you care?

Corporate culture has become the latest buzz-term in business lexicon. So popular in fact, that early last year, Meriam Webster announced that “culture” was the number one Word of the Year for 2014.

No longer is business solely about profits and paychecks. People crave something deeper. As technology and social media break down barriers, we are experiencing a huge shift toward interactions and experiences that are transparent and meaningful. Of course, in the design profession, we’ve always known this. Josh Levine, co-founder of CULTURE LABx, a non-profit community for professionals, designers and founders passionate about cultivating company culture, shared in an Inc. magazine interview this month that if a company is serious about remaining competitive in the next decade, culture management is critical.

It’s just the way we do things around here.

A Google search on the term “organizational culture” yields over 11 million results – a good many of which strive to answer the question “What is it?” I like to refer to corporate culture as the “Unwritten Rules of Engagement.” We’re all talking about it, but the concept can be very elusive. It’s not a category that shows up in the employee manual. It’s not laid out in offer letters or job descriptions, and most times, it’s not outlined on firm websites. And yet, it is the strongest driver of leadership and employee behavior every day.

Attempts to define the culture at a firm can often result in a focus on symptoms of culture rather than its underlying roots. Take the quintessential Ping-Pong table. Found in many break rooms, it can be a great way for colleagues to gather, blow-off steam and relax at the end a challenging week. But wait – who is that wielding his personal racket, the one with the killer backspin ready to gobble-up competitors in an all-out showdown? If the answer is ‘our fearless CEO,’ the Ping-Pong table might be a symptom of a very different underlying culture at play.

Beer in the fridge, half-day Fridays and a generous vacation policy – all fall into the symptom category, and they show up throughout the organization, from the design of your space, to career growth, firm rituals and rewards and your brand. To go beyond symptoms, you need to move past ‘what’ you do to understand ‘why’ you do it. Answers to the questions ‘what are we passionate about?’ and ‘what are our real commitments?’ help leaders to begin peeling the onion.

Archetypes provide answers.

A framework that can be very helpful in uncovering the ‘why’ and measuring the culture at your firm lays in the concept of Archetypes. Popularized by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Archetypes are patterns of belief and behavior that are common to all human beings. They cross time and culture. In fact, the same storylines and characters we can identify in Greek and Roman mythology show up in our movies and advertisements today.

It’s because we already understand them at a gut-level that identifying and working with these patterns can be so powerful – and a quick way to create group understanding. Here is a peek at the 12 Archetypes most commonly found in organizational culture. Just reading these simple descriptions brings insight. A deeper dive is available at

  1. Innocent: Life as it should be.
    Exemplars of optimism, Innocents see the glass as half-full.
  2. Everyperson: All for one and one for all.
    The Everyperson is real, honest and hardworking.
  3. Hero: Bring it on.
    With discipline and focus, Heroes inspire us to move faster toward clear goals.
  4. Caregiver: Make people a priority.
    Caregivers are the first to lend a hand and guide outcomes.
  5. Explorer: Don’t fence me in.
    Explorers are forever focused on what’s new.
  6. Lover: Build relationships.
    Lovers tap into our senses and create experiences and memories.
  7. Revolutionary: Conventions were made to be broken.
    Revolutionaries do things radically differently, on purpose.
  8. Creator: Pair art with science.
    Creators mold a world of possibilities into something refined and functional.
  9. Ruler: Take control and lead.
    Politically savvy and well-connected, Rulers rely on authority and expertise.
  10. Magician: Make your vision a reality.
    Magicians dream bigger, change our perspective, and transform the world.
  11. Sage: To know is to grow.
    Sages support every endeavor to learn and teach others as they go.
  12. Jester: Laugh and the world will laugh with you.
    Playful and spontaneous, the Jester makes any day a little brighter.

What can be measured can be molded.

Once you’ve identified the underlying drivers of your culture, new opportunities open up. You can use this framework to move beyond symptoms and make clear decisions around:

  • Recruiting: Attract right-fit employees with clear, authentic messages
  • Leadership Transition: Identify those that share the firm’s real commitments
  • Communication: Share the cultures of different firm divisions and locations
  • M&A: Compare cultures and assess the strength of a potential deal
  • Strategic Planning: Establish actionable priorities and goals
  • Culture Shift: Pinpoint necessary changes and make a plan to move toward a new archetypal pattern
  • Branding: Understand the real values that differentiate your firm and make them the centerpiece of brand messages and design.

And perhaps most importantly, you’ll finally be able to answer the question “What’s it really like to work here?” with confidence.

This article was originally written for PSMJ, Resources, Inc.
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