[Excerpt from The Culture Question]
Workplace culture is the most significant factor that influences happiness, work relationships, and job satisfaction. Having a clear understanding of what workplace culture is, and what your own organization’s culture is, will help you more easily identify problems and develop strategies to create a better culture and capitalize on its positive energy.
In their article, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” for the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Boris Groysberg and others write,
Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.
Though organizational culture isn’t a physical thing, you feel it every day in the ways you work and engage with others. Culture is represented in the language you use, the stories you tell, and your daily work practices. Simple things like the objects hanging on an office wall can tell you a lot about an organization’s culture. Whether you are walking to get a coffee, attending a meeting, or eating lunch, culture is present.
Workplace cultures include elements such as values, mission statements, leadership styles, and expectations for how employees treat customers, clients, and each other. Culture is visible through the ways in which people interact with each other – their behaviors. It is reflected in how things get done. It is made up of the principles and rituals that hold an organization together.
Each organization has its own distinct “personality.” Much like an individual’s personality, it is related to the collective values, beliefs, and attitudes of its members. No two workplace cultures are the same. In fact, culture is the one thing that makes each organization unique. Products and strategies can be replicated, but a culture is as distinct as a fingerprint.
For simplicity, we refer to organizational culture as “unhealthy” or “healthy.” However, workplaces are almost never all good or all bad. Instead, they exist on a spectrum of less healthy to more healthy.
In organizations on the unhealthy end of the spectrum, people are usually less motivated and may be influenced by an element of fear that can drag down their productivity. In healthier cultures, people have a sense of empowerment that energizes and inspires them to perform at a higher level. Healthy cultures create a sense of belonging, purpose, and engagement, which ultimately drive desired behavior and results.
Two of our survey participants summarized their workplace cultures in the following ways:
“We have a great team and a strong vision. Our manager is amazing and gives us freedom to try new things. I feel like I am making a difference in the lives of the people I work with. I am able to use my gifts and talents in ways that make me feel valuable and useful. I love my job, my boss, and my coworkers!”
“My coworkers are kind and caring people. I have autonomy in what I do, but receive enough direction that it’s not overwhelming. There is clear purpose to the mundane tasks, and enough exciting tasks to keep me engaged. Overall, it’s the best work environment I’ve had the chance to be in.”
These two statements highlight key elements found in many healthy workplaces. Although these survey respondents may wish to improve some aspects of their workplaces, they clearly work in organizations on the healthier end of the culture spectrum.
Focusing on a creating a workplace culture where people want to work is simply the right thing to do. But there are also practical and financial reasons for investing energy into organizational culture. In a survey conducted by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and completed by 1,400 North American CEOs, executives overwhelmingly indicated that a healthy corporate culture is essential if an organization is to thrive.
During the Industrial Revolution, it was likely more feasible to build a profitable business without taking culture into account. Standardizing tasks and eliminating errors were usually enough to make a company profitable. How employees felt about their workplace was less important to an organization’s sustainability than the ability to get work done in a timely and efficient manner. However, when we consider the social unrest of the industrial societies of the past, it is clear that many people were profoundly unhappy.
The type of work that many people do today is very different from work that was done in the past. Fewer people produce goods, which can easily be measured in terms of productivity, while more people provide services, which are difficult to quantify. To maintain productivity in most of today’s work environment, we need healthy work cultures.
In our consulting work, we have seen the very real financial and human costs associated with unhealthy workplace cultures. Financially, the cost of an unhealthy organizational culture includes high turnover and an unproductive, unengaged work force. When it comes to the human cost, people’s mental health and overall wellbeing suffer. We believe organizations that don’t focus on creating healthy workplace cultures will eventually be replaced by those that do.
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1. Groysberg, Boris, Lee, Jeremiah, Price, Jesse, and Cheng, J. Yo-Jud. “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.” Harvard Business Review, January, 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-culture-factor.
2. Fuqua School of Business. “How Corporate Culture Affects the Bottom Line.” Last modified November 12, 2015. http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/news-releases/corporate-culture/.