4 Essential Keys to Understanding Your Company's Culture

You’ve heard about the importance of company culture and how it can both attract new employees while keeping current ones engaged. However, you might still be wondering what exactly makes up company culture, why is it important, and does my own company even have a defined culture?

Company culture may seem like a vague and elusive concept, yet there are several ways to define it. Here are four keys to understanding your organization’s culture and the necessary criteria to determine whether yours may need to evolve.

Key 1: Recognize That You Do Have Company Culture

Every organization has company culture, whether intentionally cultivated or not. In short, it refers to the combination of values, goals, ethics, and expectations that govern and influence employee behaviors. If negative behaviors have been left to develop unchecked, with no guidance or direction, then yes, a company culture that supports bad habits may have taken root.

Simply put: There’s no blank slate when it comes to company culture. If you’re envisioning a specific kind—for instance, a customer-centric one—it’s not enough to simply announce that vision. You must first figure out what (and how) current behaviors need to shift in order to develop a roadmap to achieve those changes. That’s why it’s so important to define your current company culture before you try to steer it in a new direction.

Key 2: Analyze Your Company’s Priorities

If you want to better understand your culture, look at your company’s priorities. These goals and initiatives reveal what your organization values and what it does not (both explicitly and implicitly). Questions to ask yourself about company priorities may include:

  • Do your employees hear more about increasing the bottom line or increasing customer satisfaction?
  • Does your company give employees the freedom to experiment and innovate when it comes to solving problems, or is following protocol more important?
  • Is taking calculated risks seen as a distraction or opportunity?
  • How much (or how little) does your company invest in ongoing training efforts, both in terms of money and time?
  • When your company considers adopting certain efforts or changes, are the thoughts and feelings of both leadership and employees considered?

Exploring questions like this can give you clues as to what kind of culture your company has cultivated. Is it one with a workforce that’s empowered, engaged, and encouraged to innovate and improve? Or a culture where the bottom line is often prioritized? If your company’s priorities give you pause, it may be time to explore a culture transformation.

Key 3: Inquire About Company Culture

Your company culture is made up of behaviors, those that are encouraged, permitted, and hindered. To understand what kind makes up your organization, it’s best to go directly to the source: your employees.

Consider ways to get feedback on which behaviors currently serve the company well and which need to be discouraged or changed to elevate your organization. Gather feedback from all levels of employees, from executives to front-line managers. Surveys, company-wide assessments, and focus groups can all help create a clearer picture of the behaviors that define your current company culture. Again, the key is to engage every employee as you ask for feedback because the sum total of all employee contributions and behaviors are what make up your culture.

Key 4: Look to Your Leaders

While every employee contributes to company culture, leaders have more impact and influence. Examine the messages your leadership team puts forth, and whether action follows those words. Leadership may espouse values and a mission that excites employees, but if leadership itself doesn’t “walk the walk,” their behavior can contribute to a culture of distrust and disengagement. Culture starts from the top down, and your leadership sets the tone for what’s permissible and encouraged in your company and what’s not.

After examining your culture using the four keys listed, where do you think your company culture needs a tune-up—or is a complete culture transformation in order?

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