Group of people holding hands

Company Culture

“For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.” ~ Tony Hsieh

From time to time I am asked about the importance of ‘corporate culture.’ I tend to think of it as the sum of the beliefs and behaviors of those that work there. It matters in that it is the environment that people work in every day. That environment determines a great deal about the experience of those that work there. A by-product of that environment are the decisions that are made, how they are made, how customers are treated, etc. In many ways the culture of your company is the ‘heart’ of your company. I use ‘heart’ intentionally.

As fall approaches, the kids are back in school, and we turn our attention to the last quarter of the year, let’s look at ‘culture’ and see what emerges. Culture is an expansive topic, but hopefully we can explore it in a way that has meaning to you and for you.

Are you having a good summer? What lasting memories of this summer will you ‘take’ with you?

Thank you for your continued support by reading and, if you choose, commenting. I am deeply grateful for your contributions.

Be well and do your best work,


That Thing Called ‘Culture’

Culture gets a lot of ‘attention,’ but not necessarily a lot of ‘intention.’ That is because much of business, and many business leaders are concerned about the tactical, strategic, results part of their business. In many ways it is easier to deal with, it is more tangible. You can get your arms around it. Culture is  developmental, not tactical. It can also be ‘messy’ because it deals with people. Culture may be messy, but it is the heart of how we get things done.

Cultures can often look like the people who live in the ‘Land of Good Intentions.’ The people in the Land of Good Intentions always have the ‘intention’ of doing this or that. “I will get that report back to you today.” And then they don’t. “I’d love to go that party.” And then they don’t go. “Don’t worry honey, I will be at your _____ (game, recital, practice).” And then something ‘more important’ comes up. We make some commitment and then don’t keep it.

The culture of a company can be much like that. We ‘say’ one thing, but the observable behavior is something different. We may have an ‘intention’ of being a workplace where people feel safe, physically and emotionally. What we find, however, is that there is a pervasive lack of trust in people because of the gap between what they say and what they do.

This is a simple illustration. The fact is that culture is very complex. There is not just the ‘general’ culture of a company, but also sub-cultures (think departments, satellite offices, etc.). There can also be sub-cultures within the sub-cultures (think work groups within departments. My friend and colleague, Richard Smith, breaks culture into The Visible (structures, polices, procedures, tasks, goals outcomes); The Lived (what we do each day, the observed (daily), the measured (daily); what is possible to observe and measure, but we choose not to. The Espoused (vision, mission, values, beliefs, principles, motivations). The Assumed (beliefs, perceptions, projections, deep assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices, sureties and doubts.

Also operating is the Environment (physical, intellectual, social patterns, and communication patterns) and Climate (emotional and spiritual). Climate is about safety/morale, trust, optimistic/pessimistic, moral/ethical. Back to my original assertion that culture is complex. Not only do we have several ‘intentions’ and stated ways of doing things, they are occurring in different environments and climates. It is also useful to understand that cultures are dynamic because daily different people may behave in different ways.

As organizations become more intentional about their culture, they begin to hire for the traits, behaviors, and beliefs that more closely align for the culture they want to ‘live.’ I always found it useful, as a senior leader, to ask myself, “How are my beliefs and behaviors contributing positively/negatively to what I see in the culture. I may substitute “culture” with “environment” and/or “climate.” Tying my behavior to desired outcomes helps me understand more directly how I am influencing culture, which impacts my motivation to change. Working on culture should be highly personal for those stewards of the environment and climate.

We have just ‘scratched’ the surface of the dynamics of culture. While this groundwork clarifies many of the elements at work in and organizational culture, when we look at it in its ‘live’ state (at work) the complexity grows.

Think about the company ‘cultures’ you have worked in. What were they like? In most of my early experience, the culture ‘evolved.’ It was the sum of the behaviors and beliefs of those that worked there. In order to discern what the culture was like you had to sample (observe) the behaviors and beliefs in action. In order to ‘fit in’ I spent a great deal of time observing senior leaders – how they acted, what they said, what they wrote, how they dressed. I looked for commonalities and differences to know what was unique to that person, and what tended to be espoused by the group. Finding clarity about the organizational culture was never easy.

In more recent history (the last 25 years or so) companies have become more intentional about publicizing what they believed in including mission, vision, and values. From those items on the ‘walls’ of the organization you could compare what you actually saw in the ‘halls.’ Did they ‘live’ what they ‘espoused?’  My observation has been that it depends on whether what was on the ‘walls’ was personal for those that crafted the mission, vision, and values, or they sounded like something they wanted to believe in. As expected, when it was deeply personal, then they tended to ‘live’ out those beliefs and values daily; when they didn’t have a personal connection, there was greater disconnect between that which was stated (espoused) and that which was lived.

There can also be outside influences that place great stress on cultures. For instance, you lose 25% of your business, or some additional threat that challenges the existence of the business. Situations that increase our ‘fear’ also challenge ‘how’ we do business. As leaders, at the very time we should be more inclusive, we tend to isolate. Those people that were part of the process in a more ‘open’ way of doing business are now excluded. As a rationale for that behavior they may hear, “We had to do it this way in order to expedite the decision.” Under stress we also witness leaders ‘reacting’ more to situations, rather than ‘responding.’ If we are able to be open to our own feedback, we often will find how we have contributed to the fractures in our culture. We can see how certain behaviors created more distrust. We can observe more cynicism in place of trust.

When our business is ‘under attack,’ it requires us (leaders) to be more intentional in preserving the key elements of what we believe, what we value, and how we want to do business. This takes a great deal of awareness and discipline to exhibit the behaviors that foster a healthy culture, even if those actions may appear counter intuitive to what we want to do.

At the beginning, I said that culture was the ‘heart’ of the organization. That heart is why people are engaged, love working there, and will do all they can to help it survive and thrive. It is why working on our culture and in our culture is a key responsibility of everyone, especially leadership.

To your journey and living out the best version of you…



Of InterestFive articles on Corporate Culture  you need to read today.