How do you define “culture”?

Black silhouettes of business people walking away on a white backgroundWe can agree that a company’s culture is important – that it has a huge effect on employee experience, the ability to hire good people and then retain them, and ultimately on the customer experience and the company’s success.

But what IS culture?

Is it how you feel about going to work every day? Is it measured by your turnover rate? Your annual employee survey results?

What IS culture?

We need to know the answer to this question of how to define culture because if we don’t know what it is, we can’t do anything to improve.

(And yes, whether you’re a first-line manager and leader, or you’re a seasoned excutive, or an individual team member, you do impact the culture, for better OR for worse.)

I’ve been writing about culture and its definitions on LinkedIn. My current favorite definition came from a comment on one of those posts – and I’m saving it for last, so keep reading!

Culture is personality

If your company was a person, what would its personality be? Would it be introverted or extroverted, or somewhere in between? Friendly or reserved? Critical and judgemental, or open-minded and willing to listen? Forthright and honest, or secretive and sneaky? And so on.

It may seem odd to think of an organization as a person, but it’s very revealing.

Culture is what employees can and cannot talk about

What are the unwritten rules about what – and how – you raise issues? Are all employees (not just senior leaders) encouraged to offer suggestions? Can people admit to mistakes without being harshly judged or penalized? Can you discuss the hard things that happen in the world, or are there taboo subjects?

Culture is defined by the worst behavior tolerated

We’ve all heard stories, and probably witnessed examples: so-and-so is a real jerk, but they provide so much “value” that they can’t be fired.

I put “value” in quotes because I seriously question the value of anyone who’s known to be a jerk. What value is there in someone who perhaps does their job very well, even excellently, but in the process drags everyone around them down?

Not much. The net effect is almost always negative.

Culture is the feeling you get from millions of tiny, unexamined behaviors

This is the one I mentioned that came from a LinkedIn comment.

And it beautifully summarizes all the others.

Culture must be intentional

If you’re not intentional about defining, building, and maintaining your culture, it will take shape from everything I’ve listed here and more.

And I can promise you that it won’t be what you want.

Your first-line and mid-level managers have an outsize role and impact when it comes to company culture, because they’re the ones who interact with the vast majority of your individual employees on a regular basis. Let’s talk about how to help them understand and promote a healthy, humane culture in your organization. It’s not as hard as you might think, and it’s more important than you might believe.