What Is Culture?



Culture is tremendously misunderstood. There is enormous confusion surrounding what is and what isn’t culture, even among the highest level of organizational leaders today. This fire is constantly being stoked by the media with crazy stories about some insane perk some organization has decided to offer its employees, which is being touted as part of its great culture, when usually it has nothing to do with culture and the organization may or may not be around a year from now.

The first thing you learn from a media consultant is: Never automatically accept the premise of a question. If you are asked, begin by questioning in your mind whatever the question assumes. I would like to encourage you to adopt a similar mind exercise anytime culture is mentioned at work, in the media, or in conversation. Start by asking which of the six principles it relates to—if you cannot easily connect it with one of the six principles we are about to discuss, there’s a pretty good chance it has nothing to do with culture.


Anything that creates entitlement is either a fad or bad culture. Dynamic Cultures create empowerment, not entitlement.


One of the questions I ask leaders in our executive off-site retreats is: What is it about your organization that keeps you awake at night? Most of them joke that they are so tired by the time they do finally get to bed that nothing keeps them awake. The question, of course, is both literal and metaphorical.


Talk to any seasoned leader and they will tell you that the business of business is pretty straightforward. From time to time a marketing, finance, or supply chain situation might keep them awake at night. But that’s the answer to the question only about 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent of the time what weighs heavy on leaders’ minds is people and culture. The two, not surprisingly, are inseparable.


When it comes to culture, there is a lot of confusion. What it is and what it isn’t are the two main ideas at the center of that confusion. So, let’s explore them together.


Culture is not just a collection of personal preferences. Too often we hear stories about people being able to bring their dogs to work; having unlimited vacation time; wearing anything they want to work; getting free snacks; being allowed to work from their local coffee shop instead of coming to the office; etc. These may masquerade as culture, but they are trifles.


In fact, many of these things can do more damage than good. And the misguided, misplaced, and recklessly irresponsible idea that they are at the core of a Dynamic Culture and that you cannot have a great culture without such perks is what causes many leaders and organizations to give up on culture improvement even before they have begun.


This book is not about those types of fleeting, empty, pretend cultures, because at best these perks are only very loosely related to culture. At worst, if one day you have to eliminate one of these perks for reasons that are valid, logical, and immensely reasonable, you will experience the wrath of entitlement at a level that is completely disproportionate to the situation at hand. This will of course massively damage morale and be considered a direct attack on the organization’s culture. Thus, something that had virtually nothing to do with culture to begin with will end up doing real damage to your organization’s actual culture.


So, let’s be clear from the start: The goal of a Dynamic Culture is not to make employees happy. The best an organization can do is create an environment where it is possible for employees to establish happiness for themselves. A Dynamic Culture cannot make employees happy, but it can make fulfillment and happiness at work a lot more attainable.


Here’s the problem. While an organization cannot make employees happy, it can make them miserable. The number one complaint of employees is their manager. I don’t care how good your personal life is or how positive your attitude is, a bad manager can make you and your life very miserable. And this is just one example of how an unhealthy culture can make people unhappy.

While we are talking about managers, I’d like to propose that we eradicate the term manager from organizational life. Who wants a manager? Who wants to be managed? Wouldn’t everyone prefer a leader? Why can’t a team manager be a team leader? Can a shift manager be a shift leader? Would you rather introduce the person you report to as, “This is my manager, Jacqueline,” or “This is my team leader, Jacqueline”?


I understand we all need direction and accountability, and certainly the work of various people needs to be coordinated in order to accomplish the desired team outcome. Does it matter if we call the person a manager or a leader? Yes. Unless there is a really, really good reason to call someone a manager, I say we call him or her a leader.


How many people do you know who are miserable at work? It’s a big number. I could quote the latest research, but it would be out of date before this book gets published, and you probably have a rough sense anyway. Another question: How many people do you know who would love to leave their current role or organization? Again, that’s a big number. At least 40 percent of employees in the average culture are actively looking for another role with another organization.


Culture can change that. In fact, it might be the only thing that can change it in the long term. Turnover and disengagement have plagued organizations for decades. They are so expensive that if we were able to accurately measure their real cost, every serious leader of an organization would make it their number one priority to create a culture so dynamic that nobody would ever want to leave.


Now let’s turn to the real question: What is culture?

Culture is the soul of an organization. You cannot necessarily see it or touch it, but it is always there. It influences everything that happens within an organization, from who gets hired and fired to how safe people feel presenting a new idea or pointing out a problem, how much people enjoy coming to work, and how effectively teams accomplish their work.


According to The Business Dictionary, “Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” Really? I mean, maybe academically that’s how they describe it, but I’m not sure how any business would set about practically applying it.


David Needle says, “Organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs, and principles . . . and is the product of such factors as history, product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture.” He goes on to assert that culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.

Want something even more complicated? Organizational development expert Edgar H. Schein writes, “Organizational culture is defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel in relation to these problems.” Mr. Schein may be a genius, I don’t know, but this sounds more like a cult than a place I’d like to work.


These all seem disconnected from the people and organizations I encounter and love working with. Another thing that strikes me is that all three definitions are completely passive. Dynamic organizational cultures don’t just happen—they are built. So, let’s start again. What is culture?

It seems to me we should never think deeply about anything without first considering the purpose of that thing. The purpose of culture is to help an organization better fulfill its mission with the understanding that a healthy environment will best serve that mission in the long run. From that perspective, culture is everything an organization does that helps it become the-very-best-version-of-itself, and everything it does to fulfill its mission better this year than it did last year. If someone or something helps your organization become a-better-version-of-itself, embrace it. If someone or something prevents your organization from becoming a-better-version-of-itself, run.


But, but, but . . . it is very important to remember this single outrageous idea when we are discussing culture: We are here to work. I know it may seem like a blatant announcement of the obvious, but too often that reality gets thrown out the window when organizations start talking about culture. When we forget we are here to work, when we disconnect our discussions about culture from our individual work and collective mission, those conversations move quickly toward things that can actually be a real distraction from the work at hand. I know it may seem crazy, but when it comes to work, we are actually here to accomplish something.


It is impossible, therefore, to establish a Dynamic Culture without a clear sense of mission (principle two). Everything about any culture should help you accomplish your mission more effectively.

We may not be able to agree on a definition, but one thing everyone can agree on is that as an employee, you know when a culture is healthy and when it is unhealthy and dysfunctional. You know a Dynamic Culture when you see it and when you get to experience and enjoy it every day. And customers can tell too.


But for the sake of clarity, let’s agree on a definition of culture to use as a reference point throughout the rest of this book: Culture is the vision, values, systems, language, expectations, behaviors, and beliefs that increase or decrease an organization’s chances of accomplishing its strategy and fulfilling its mission, which in turn increases or decreases how much people enjoy coming to work.


It might be a great exercise to break the definition down into practical examples in your organization. You may want to do it on your own, or you may want to do it as a team. Warning: No culture is perfect, so don’t just focus on the positives. I have set up questions to help with that.


  • What’s the vision?

  • What are the organization’s values (good and bad, spoken and unspoken)?

  • What are the systems that help you accomplish your mission? What systems get in the way of accomplishing your mission?

  • What is some of the unique language used in the organization that helps people buy into the mission (or accomplish it)? What language is counterproductive?

  • What is expected of you and your team?

  • What behaviors increase or decrease the organization’s chances of success?

  • What beliefs are central to the vision and mission? How are they upheld and how are they violated?

  • What increases and decreases how much you enjoy coming to work?

It is also imperative to recognize that culture is not static. It constantly changes for better or for worse. The thing to be very clear about is that if you don’t have a vision of the culture you want for your organization and a plan to bring about that culture, a culture will emerge anyway—and sooner or later, that unintentional culture becomes a wild beast.


In many ways, culture is an ongoing conversation about who you are as an organization and who you want to become. Culture is not something you determine once and then it is done. There may be pieces of your culture that are unchanging and nonnegotiable—such as mission, vision, and values—but there may also be pieces of your organization’s culture that change over time. If you have fifty employees and you grow to 250 employees, your culture is going to change—guaranteed. The only question is, are you going to envision and drive that new culture or just see what happens? I’d recommend the former.


Matthew Kelly, The Culture Solution