Authentic company cultures & why they matter

Most companies have realized that a powerful culture is the oil of their engines for success. The way people work together – the HOW- is as / or even more important as the actual goals of a company – the WHAT. Especially in times where strategy needs to be adaptive to rapid change.

Your culture defines how fast, successful and innovative you reach your goals, your defined strategy. And you better be faster, more innovative and successful than others. 

Or as Peter Drucker puts it: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Culture is significant for how companies function: from strategic change to everyday leadership and how managers and employees relate to and interact with each other and customers as well as to how knowledge is created, shared, maintained and utilized. 

But what do we actually mean when we talk about a company culture? What does it imply? And even more importantly, what does it take to be lived by people?

These are 3 interesting questions which are not easy to answer as the understanding of culture is rather complex and abstract. I’ve come across these questions quite a few times and answering them requests an understanding of the term “culture” on different layers. 

This I see as important to later on avoid the implementation of a “fake culture” in your organization. 

Understanding what culture means is key to successfully create one

Looking into the terminology, we quickly realize that there is no broadly agreed meaning. And this is what makes it so hard to grasp and difficult to discuss about. Still, trying to find one, we should take a look into the fields of sociology and economy. 

Culture (sociology): a learned pattern of perception, values and behaviors, shared by a group of people that are dynamic and heterogeneous. (Martin & Nakayama (2013))

Organizational Culture (economy): the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. (Business Dictionary) 

“Viewing culture broadly as a shared and learned world of experiences, meanings, values and understandings which inform people and which are expressed, reproduced and communicated is consistent with a variety of approaches to the conduct on concrete studies.“ – Understanding Organizational Culture 2nd Edition. 

I want to highlight a few keywords from the definitions, which I think are important to keep in mind: #values, #beliefs, #understandings, #experiences, #shared, #communicated, #expressed, #group, #organization, #environment

This being said culture, or better organizational culture in this case, as often misinterpreted has only little to do with the material benefits and perks you are offering and providing to your organization. It is much more about a common mindset, a group think that is driving certain behaviors and beliefs. 

Your culture is your identity, it’s the organizations’ DNA 

After getting some more clarity on what we mean with culture in and outside of an organization it leads us to the question on how we, as founders, managers, employees – who are all part of the same organization can create and nurture a healthy and authentic company culture.

On purpose I put a lot of weight on the word “authentic” as looking at the definition above, writing down values, printing them on posters and telling your organization that this is your culture now, will simply not work. Neither will providing a fancy gym or offering free lunches. 

Here are some steps you might want to take into account instead: 

Involve everyone who is contributing to this culture

Most likely you are already in the setting of a team or organization and whether you want it or not there is already an existing culture. Some parts of this culture might perfectly work for the organization, others not. However creating a culture is not cherry picking. Sit down with everyone who is contributing to this culture and find out what is making you strong as a group and what is making you weak. Thereby you are able to define your values together and ensure there is a shared belief into them. 

Be lead by your values & beliefs

It is important that your values are not only empty words that where once defined and then never seen again. As you gained them from a crowd sourcing you know that they are already partly lived and you have to find ways to live them even more consequently in your daily work. Important to remember is that values should empower everyone in the organization to collaborate better, provide guidance to decisions, improve handling with customers, speed up innovation (to name some) – simply: once they are meaningful to the work, they will be integrated and lived more easily.

Ensure and maintain a common understanding of your values & beliefs

A culture creates an identity of an organization. Something you are standing for. Your values and beliefs should be clear and simple to understand for everyone, to make it easy to either identify with them or not. A culture lives from vivid communication and exchanges which fosters this common understanding, especially when growing as an organization. It also constantly raises the question to the every member of the group: do I still identify with it?

This culture in the end will offer you guidance in how you and the whole organization want to deal with various topics: how do you want to live leadership, what is your hiring approach, how much do you invest in innovation, how do you want to collaborate with your customers, … It will basically form a compass for your decisions.

I believe that we need to learn more about culture in order to encourage a critical thinking-through of the underestimated or taken-for-granted aspects of values and beliefs. Keeping the debate open and talking more about it will move us away from taking a good company culture as a given and makes us realize that we need to work on it to keep it strong and lived by all members.