Let’s look past the buzzword and define the key elements of organizational culture.
“Culture” has become the ultimate buzzword these days.
Everyone wants to “improve their company culture.” I see the word frequently littered across the headlines of countless articles, book titles, and conference talk topics. Leaders also seem to talk about it all the time: CEOs say company culture is their first or second-most-important priority as a leader.
Yet for as much we seem to talk about it, do we really know what culture is?
If we want to influence our company culture, we have to start with a keen understanding of what culture actually is.
What is company culture, really?
“Culture is the way we do things around here.”
You may have heard this before. It’s how prominent organizational consultants Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture in the 1980s. Culture is the thing you can’t necessarily touch and feel — it’s the invisible binds and unspoken rules that enforce “how people do things around here.”
However, this definition can be insufficient at times. “The way we do things” feels awfully vague and amorphous, especially when it comes to thinking about how to intentionally create a company culture we’re proud of.
As a result, our attempts to influence culture get muddled. We conflate culture with surface-level relics, confusing culture with “Things To Make People Feel Good.” Think ping pong tables and happy hours and free lunches. Sure, those are part of “the way we do things” — but it doesn’t explain why you’re doing those things. Culture includes that why.
Let’s take a look at culture a few levels deeper.
Three levels of culture
Edgar Schein, another prominent organizational scholar, defined culture as having three levels:
This is the level of culture closest to the surface. Artifacts are things you can see, touch, smell. Ping pong tables, happy hours, and free lunches. It’s also the office layout, the logo rebranding you just did, and your company holiday party. This is typically what we think of when it comes to company culture.
Espoused values and beliefs
One level deeper is your espoused values and beliefs. These are the things you think you believe and say you believe. It’s the mission statement you wrote together as a company, the code of conduct that’s in your employee handbook, or the six core company values your CEO talks about during your all-staff meeting.
Basic underlying assumptions
This is the final, core layer of culture. Basic underlying assumptions are the things you actually believe. For example, at Know Your Team, we have a basic underlying assumption that we must be honest, regardless of the personal cost. So when we made a big mistake a few years ago, we proactively shared it with our customers, even it meant risking losing them. Our basic underlying assumption steered our decision-making and how “we do things around here” — ultimately, driving our culture.
Our basic underlying assumptions are the foundation of culture. If we can influence our basic underlying assumptions, we can influence culture.
Why this matters
More often than not, there’s a misalignment between this final layer — the basic underlying assumptions — and the espoused values and beliefs and artifacts. The things you actually believe, versus the things you say you believe and the things you do to show it.
Perhaps the most glaring case has been Uber. A company that no doubt had artifacts as “proof” that they valued their employees — lavish office parties and state-of-the-art offices. A company that had 14 cultural values it touted, including that employees should “be themselves.” And yet the basic underlying assumption persisted: Win at all costs, by any means necessary. We saw this in countless of examples of questionable ethics and sexual harassment issues ignored. At its core, Uber’s culture was rooted in this aggressive, toxic mindset — and that manifested in how they treated their people, regardless of what superficial artifacts or espoused values they trumpeted.
If you’re looking to truly shift your company’s culture, you have to zoom in on this last and final layer: Your basic underlying assumptions. What you truly believe — not always what you say or outwardly show — is what drives your company’s culture. This should be your focus as a manager, CEO or employee.
Changing your company culture is not about just changing the artifacts. Getting beer taps installed in the kitchens doesn’t make your culture more friendly. Nor does building an onsite gym mean your culture all of sudden cares about employees’ health and well-being.
Changing your company culture also isn’t about just changing the espoused values and beliefs. Saying at all-company meetings, “We believe in honesty and transparency” or writing “We believe in diversity and inclusion” on your career website doesn’t automatically make those things true. Changing your company culture is about tapping into the core beliefs of each individual, understanding what their basic underlying assumptions are, and creating an environment where those can be listened to, brought together, and reacted to.
How do you exactly do this? Read How to Influence Company Culture as a Leader.
Until then, I hope we can take a minute to look past company culture as not a cliché — but an opportunity to precise, perceptive lens to examine figure out how to make our organizations better.
If we can understand company culture, we can improve it.