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What is culture?

You are probably tired of seeing this word mentioned in countless job descriptions and conversations in and outside your organisation. “That’s not the culture here.” Or “that’s our culture”. Or “we have a transparent culture”.

Quite often this is just an abuse of the term culture. But because it is popular, it makes those making the claims feel like they work at a great organisation.

If you don’t believe me, you could try asking, “Could you give me a summary of your organisational culture?” You might then have to wait for a good response. I have had mixed results with this. Most people struggle to explain or put it in words. For that matter, most people cannot even define the word culture. I have had responses along the lines of:

  • It is just that rule-set which is not written anywhere but everyone seems to follow and behave accordingly
  • it is what we value in the organisation

A lot of times I have respondents trying to come up with anecdotes. I then follow up with, how do you show someone your organisation’s culture, to which yet again, I see a struggle to find the right words.

If they said values, then it shows that they know something about developing an organisational culture. But maybe they are just guessing, or maybe they know it but cannot explain. I do not blame those who talk about culture but cannot explain it. It is difficult to put common or expected human behaviour in words. What do you call it?

So what does culture mean? To give you definitions from a dictionary: Definition 1

The arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought considered as a unit, especially with regard to a particular time or social group.

Definition 2

The set of predominating attitudes and behaviour that characterize a group or organisation.

Yes, an organisation’s values which most employees consider quotes hung on a wall or media used for marketing is crucial in creating a culture.

Culture is that unwritten set of values and ethics that everyone in the organisation believes in and propagates.

Why is it important?

A company with a great culture operates like a well oiled machine. Everyone is clear on when they have to put additional effort or go the extra mile to get something over the line. Good effort is always appreciated. This is key too. If a values say good effort is appreciated but leaders behave differently, you are not helping create a good culture here.

An organisation with a good culture is more resilient to change because strong culture motivates and takes people through difficult times. The fundamental unit of delivery of any product is dependent on a team and a good organisational culture promotes great team work.

Culture is not just an internal thing. Over the years, a good culture will work as an important part of the brand image of your organisation. People will want to work there because they heard about the culture. Take for example Google, Microsoft etc. These companies are known for their culture. Thus despite being the size they are, people still yearn to work there.

How do we create a culture?

Creating a set of values that can be clearly communicated and understood easily is the first step to creating a good culture. It is a lot easier said than done.

But then what about retaining and enriching that culture in a positive way?

If you think about it, people are the ones that carry a company’s culture forward. Getting the right people in the right role is extremely important for this cultural propagation to continue. But how do you get it right when hiring?

You must work on aspects of your hiring process to ensure that you evaluate the values of the candidates you hire. Tailor your questions to assess how they demonstrate these values. This is what organisations term as cultural fit assessment in interviews. If done poorly, you could go from a bad organisation to a toxic one real quick. But if done well, you could turn the ship around!

When you focus on hiring the right people there are two important factors to consider:

  • skill-set - ability to get the job done
  • mindset - the drive, the ownership or the desire to shift blame, the way they deal with difficult/stressful situations, admitting failure are just some important things to consider

Remember that it is not just the skill-set that you are after when you hire a person. It is important to assess the mindset of the candidate too. With all the skill but the wrong mindset, the candidate might end up causing friction or leaving the organisation sooner than you intended to keep them.

These are important, no matter how technical the job is. I have experience sitting in feedback/wash-up sessions of technical interviews and have had to answer the awkward view that some people have about technical candidate hiring.

Technical roles, especially ones that involve leadership require additional effort in the hiring process. Bad leaders can cost you a lot as they tend to drive away your good people. You may use excuses like “they are technically very strong”. But if they are a bad team player, you risk losing an entire team by protecting that one toxic person. Your team is relying on you, their hiring manager or engineering manager, to ensure that the right people end up in the team. So listen to the team, keep an eye out, implement a good 360 feedback system, keep skip level 1-1s and keep in touch in general.

Developing questions for your interview process that will help you understand or dig into details that help recognise a culture fit is a difficult task. But it is an important step in the process of retaining or improving company culture, the effort invested will pay off over a period of time.

Hired someone, how do we propagate culture?

One of the most important aspect of carrying a culture forward after someone is hired is to ensure that there is a well written career framework that sets out the expectations clearly for anyone wishing to progress in the organisation.

Career Frameworks are an important part of creating an organisation. It gives a clear career pathway for anyone joining the organisation. It details how they could transition to a different role if they wanted and what the expectations are at different levels of the role. Career frameworks are also used to set salary bands and ensure a fair promotion process as the expectations for a promotion is clearly detailed in the career framework.

Create a career framework for the various roles to ensure the expectations are clear for each level of the role and that every level has expectations based on the values of the organisation. This helps retain and develop employees and also provides a career instead of a job. Indirectly it helps people to propagate the expectations of the company culture.

People are more likely to work at an organisation with strong values and great culture - this has been proven through research. See articles listed in useful resources section for more details.

A good culture helps create a community that supports one another there by creating and a sense of belonging. Human beings are likely to choose a workplace that make them feel inclusive and where they have relationships with their colleagues that can be defined as something closer to friendship.

Useful resources

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