10 min read
Every organization has the freedom to design its own culture. In this guide, you’ll learn about company culture, the benefits of a healthy one, and ways of implementing better cultural practices.
Company culture is the glue that holds your company together— and it comes down to your organization's shared set of values, goals, attitudes, and practices.
A strong culture is an important factor for success. It impacts everything from employee retention to your bottom line. Taking the time to nurture it with integrity will have positive returns.
If you haven’t yet got a handle on company culture, this article is for you. We dive deeper into what precisely shapes culture, its importance, and steps you can take to identify it.
A straightforward way to think about company culture is that it’s “the way we do things around here”, said Laurie Bennett, company culture coach and co-founder of Within People.
Organizational culture captures the beliefs and behaviors that define “who we are, why we’re here, and how we do what we do at this organization”.
Corporate cultures work in a similar way as cultures around the world. It’s shaped by the rituals, traditions, and ways of seeing the world shared by and unique to a group of people. In this case, every employee at work.
And like any type of culture, they survive or die according to how actively we live them.
That may sound a bit nebulous. So, let’s look at a tangible example. Let’s compare the culture of two imaginary software companies: Skip and Hangar (software companies have funny names).
Skip has a culture of innovation.
Things move quickly at their company, and the office is fizzing with employees collaborating in creative sprints. They release updates to their product every week. There are frequent bugs in this software, but that’s ok; it’s how they learn and move forward. They go back and fix the bugs quickly and make fast progress because of this.
Hangar has a culture of craftsmanship.
The company is more deliberate, and everything moves a little slower. They design by hand, and each bespoke release bears a personal touch. They release updates every four weeks, but the updates are near-perfect.
This is just one simple example of company culture differences, but it clarifies what culture is and how it impacts business.
Neither of these cultures is stronger or weaker, or better or worse than the other. It just affects how work gets done and the type of work that’s valued. Which, in turn, will attract and retain different types of employees and customers.
Before we get too much deeper, there are a couple of myths to bust.
Company culture is often confused with things that look like culture but aren’t. Fun things you do and free stuff you give people to make them happy.
Those are nice, but they’re not your culture unless they’re rooted in the authentic truth of why your company exists and what it stands for.
They’re, by definition, perks—the cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae. And if your cultural ice cream is awful, no amount of cherries is going to make up for it in the long run.
Here are some things to watch out for, according to Laurie.
Company cultures are built on a blueprint of purpose and values. These provide the enduring reference from which company cultures are defined and lived.
Purpose describes why a company exists. It’s like an infinite goal—you can’t check it off a list when it’s complete. It’s the passion that fuels everything you do.
Purpose provides a North Star for a company, giving meaning and direction to what it does.
Apple’s purpose is to empower the individual to think differently, and it’s fuelled decades of creativity and innovation that have changed the way we work, listen to music, and communicate.
As a set, values provide a brief for how to behave (and how not to behave), setting an expectation for the kind of people a company wants to attract and how they’ll work together to be successful.
A great company culture example, Zappos is known for its outstanding customer service, where staff can be themselves, go off-script, and spend as long as it takes on the phone to solve a client’s problem.
Their ten core values enable them to attract people who make the right connection and imbue their customer support conversations with the right feeling. They don’t need a stilted conversation tree or automated jargon.
Now we understand what company culture is (and is not), let’s dig into why it’s so important. The detailed list of reasons is long, but here are four key points that sum it up nicely:
Your culture knits together the different people at your company and keeps them aligned. If your company culture is unclear, it breeds fear and mistrust instead of safety and cohesion.
But once your culture is clear, different perspectives and viewpoints can all gather behind it with a common purpose. Your culture sets consistent expectations for how people behave and work together, even with different skill sets.
A declared and authentic company culture provides long-term direction and a framework for making consistent decisions in an ever-shifting environment. It’s a critical, creative constraint for innovation and growth, preventing workers from wandering off down the garden path.
If your culture provides meaning, you have the best chance of attracting people who believe in what you stand for and want to give their all. If your culture is transparent and authentic, you’ll attract and keep the people who are best suited to it and lose those who aren’t.
Your company culture is important as it underpins a relationship with customers who don’t just buy what you do but buy into it. And provided you live that culture consistently, they’ll try to find a way to stick with a company they believe in.
Your company culture influences teamwork, productivity, efficiency, and turnover rates.
Try not to think of company culture as an isolated thing, an ongoing project that lives in one corner of your business.
Because it doesn’t exist in isolation, company culture flows between everything in your business, impacting everything. No department, team, or person is left untouched.
To give you a better idea, here's what impacts your company culture and helps drive success.
Most companies don’t look to ‘find’ their culture at the start. It feels kind of obvious (we all know why we’re doing this) and a little unnecessary (we’re all sat around this one table).
Usually, it comes a little later…
The job of culture-finding is an exercise in distillation. Company culture is essential—it’s about making sure employees are encouraged to regularly share ideas, understanding what’s true about a company, and refining that into a clear framework that you can build belief in.
The task usually belongs to a founder or a leadership team. Sometimes it’s delegated to HR, but in the end, it tends to involve people throughout the company.
Here are a few tips for (re)discovering company culture:
The funny thing about company culture is that every company has one.
Look around. Why are people here? How are they working together? How does it feel? Your culture is there whether you like it or not. It’s just that some companies choose to define and nurture it with care and intention. And others don’t.
While every team member in an organization affects the culture, the leaders have the most significant influence. Leadership style is fundamentally about embodying and upholding what a company values. So, if leaders model the culture, it will thrive. If they don’t, it will lose credibility, and it won’t survive.
"Be yourself, everyone else is already taken."
Your culture is based on who you are as a company, not who others aren’t. Don’t focus on being unique; focus on being authentic. When are you truly at your best? Trying to be different makes you neurotic. Being authentic makes you trustworthy. In the end, nothing is more unique than genuine authenticity.
Defining your purpose and values will clarify what your culture is based on. But, to turn a framework into a culture, you need every employee to feel and believe it.
It needs to be the story you tell yourselves every day. And you need to build the confidence to live it. Live it; lead by it and shape your processes, working environment, policies, and products around it.
The road to defining and living your culture can be a bumpy one. It asks people to look deep inside, to be open and vulnerable. Making decisions based on your values can sometimes be tricky. It might reveal to some that they aren’t in the right job.
People who work for a great culture are empowered to be creative problem solvers. They’re enabled with resources and the freedom to initiate innovative projects, adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Transparency is vital; a strong sign of company culture is when decision-makers share top-down information and power so that employees can make autonomous decisions and come up with timely solutions.
Wrapping your head around company culture can be tricky. It’s an elusive, slippery topic. At first blush, it seems pretty easy to define… but the more you try to explain it, the more shapeless it becomes.
And because it’s hard to define (and quantify), it’s easy to ignore or neglect. But you shouldn’t.
Remember to look within your company to discover and establish your true values. Then live and enable them each day to keep everyone in your company marching to the beat of the same drum.
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