So what the *^?@ is “culture,” anyway?

Silhouettes of businesspeople walking awayEvery company has a culture – a personality, if you will. In fact, in larger companies each department or division also has its own sub-culture, which can sometimes be quite different from that of the company as a whole, or that of other departments. If you’ve ever envied a colleague because they worked in a department known for its supportive culture, while your department … wasn’t so much … you know what I mean.

And then there are culture change initiatives, where leadership decides that the culture needs to be improved somehow.

But what IS a company culture? And how can we determine if a company’s culture is “good” or “needs improvement”?

Setting aside a truly toxic culture, the answer begins with that second question, because a “good” culture for one person is a “bad” culture for someone else.  (And one can argue that every culture could always stand a little improvement.)

But obviously that’s only a very partial answer.

I’ve heard culture defined as “what we can and cannot talk about.”

There’s some reality in that. If the culture is one of openness and psychological safety, it’s probably a reasonably “good” culture. On the other hand, if there are taboo topics, harassment of any sort, or if making a mistake is a career-killer, well, I can’t imagine any of us want to work in that sort of environment.

One of the reasons culture is so slippery to define is that, as an Investopedia article states, “Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.” 

Which brings me to my current favorite definition, which I heard only this morning on an episode of Simon Sinek’s podcast “A Bit of Optimism.” He quoted retired Marine General George Flynn as saying that “culture equals values plus behavior.”

There is so much in that five-word statement.

Values plus behavior: if the leadership and employees are walking the talk of their values – then you have a culture that’s aligned and congruent.

Values plus behavior: if, on the other hand, they are not walking the talk – if their behavior isn’t aligned with their stated values – then you have a culture that’s struggling.

Your employees will be jaded, cynical, disengaged; your customers will be skeptical; and your company will be less successful over time than it could be.

Note that in both cases you have a culture. Companies always have a culture. It’s a question of whether the culture is one where people enjoy coming to work and are productive, versus one where people dread coming to work and are much less productive.

All companies have a culture. It's also safe to say that all cultures, even 'good' ones, could stand some improvement. But what IS 'company culture,' anyway?!Click To Tweet

So how do you align values and behavior?

Be intentional. Don’t just pick a bunch of pretty words and put them on a poster on the wall. Explore what the company’s values really are, and then define behaviors that you can measure and hold employees (and leadership!) accountable to.

And then hold them accountable!

Yes, it takes work. But it’s worth it, because then you’ll have a culture that people want to be part of – a culture that’s fun, that invites the right people in, and encourages them to grow.

By the way – if you’re not part of senior leadership, you can still implement this in your department or team, or for yourself personally. 

It starts with defining values. And holding yourself accountable to them.


So if you’re now wondering – what are my values? – these might help: “Values, Preferences, Needs, and Wants (oh my!)“, and “The Value of Values“.

Wondering how to create culture change based on values? Check out Kevin Oakes’ book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build and Unshakeable Company. I admit I haven’t read it as of this writing, but it’s on my Read Next list based on a REALLY great podcast episode with him on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast.

And there’s the Change Leadership program, of course!


gljudson Change leadership, Strategic thinking