What is organizational culture?
Why culture is actually about empathy, and how you can create it in your organization…
We all know it’s something we should care about, but what do we actually mean when we talk about organizational culture? There are a variety of definitions to draw on, and they mostly circle around the same key touchpoints of shared values, purpose, customs, beliefs, and behaviors.
Organizational culture shapes and informs how a business looks and feels, underpinning everything from how employees communicate with each other day to day, to how strategic goals are decided, to how the corporate accounts show up on social media. It’s also not a static thing. As a company continues to evolve and grow its culture will grow with it – or that’s the theory at least.
However, when we talk about culture like this – and even when we call it ‘organizational culture’ – it almost sounds like it’s someone elses responsibility. HR, team leaders, c-suite – tick where appropriate, right? Actually, that’s a misconception. Company culture is the sum of its parts. It’s all of our responsibility and, within reason, we can all play a part in shaping it. That’s not to say CEOs can pass the buck, absolutely not. But small things can, and do, lead to big things.
How else can we define organizational culture?
So let’s get granular on organizational culture. The top-level definition above sounds pretty good, right? But there’s also a less PR-friendly version of what culture really means, and it’s this…
Your culture is defined by the worst behavior you’re prepared to tolerate.
Ouch. Direct as it is, though, this definition cuts through the noise. If you’re prepared to overlook bullying, micromanaging, favoritism, lack of inclusivity, or hostility from one or more of your employees then that’s your culture. It’s not what you have on your email signature, or on the poster on the wall. It’s all bad day behavior you turn a blind eye to and leave unchallenged.
So why does organizational culture matter?
We’ve probably covered this above but just to be clear, yes, organizational culture does very much matter. It’s not just an aside to the important stuff, it’s a key component of your business.
And why is that? Well, culture connects the dots across the whole of your business. Performance, employee engagement, and all of the other big guns are supported and enhanced by having a strong organizational culture. If you get that right then there’s every chance the rest will follow.
Here are just a few examples as to why organizational culture matters…
- Strong culture leads to increased employee engagement
Forbes report that companies with winning organizational cultures have 72% higher employee engagement ratings than organizations with weak cultures
- Good culture correlates with performance
According to research by McKinsey, organizations with top quartile cultures post a return to shareholders 200% higher than those in the bottom quartile
- Poor culture leads to increased turnover
One report found that one in five Americans left a job due to poor company culture in the last year
What happens when organizational culture goes wrong?
If culture was an easy thing to fix then you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Let’s face it, if all it took was a pool table and a couple of bean bags we could probably all go home now.
The fact is, culture is a really hard thing to get right. It’s hard when your organization is growing. It’s hard when your workforce is located across the globe in regions that have their own cultures and ecosystems that may be slightly different to the overarching corporate culture. And it’s hard when your entire workforce pivots to working from home, as they may have done over the past eighteen months. So, if there are lots of organizations who aren’t totally nailing it, it’s because it’s a big ask. However, that’s all the more reason to take organizational culture incredibly seriously.
We’ve seen a few prominent examples recently where organizational culture has been publicly called into question. Multinational pub chain and craft brewer BrewDog’s culture was recently described as “toxic” in an open letter by former employees, where they wrote that “being treated like a human was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.”
Apple have also found themselves in the crossfire lately, when they received an open letter from employees in response to the news that they would require staff to return to the office three days a week. One of the most compelling statements in that letter was the following: “Over the last year we have often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.”
Supporting organizational culture through self-awareness
So how do you remedy organizational culture when it’s gone wrong?
Well, it’s really interesting to look at company culture through the lens of self-awareness. Senior leaders and the c-suite in an organization may define their culture in one way, but, self-awareness needs to be leveraged to get a true read on it. Why? Because what you think your culture is and what it actually is may be two completely different things – and that’s a risk. Applying self-awareness to your organizational culture means answering some big questions:
- Does your perceived work culture align with the day-to-day experience of employees?
- Is that culture consistent across the business, or are there microclimates within it?
- Is the c-suite prepared to really examine company culture at every touch point?
Because here’s the thing. If you want great, long-lasting organizational culture you’re going to have to have difficult conversations, hear things you may not want to hear, and swallow some pride. You need to come armed with candor, honesty, and a willingness to listen – otherwise there’s no point. Self-awareness is key, but it’s not an end point. It’s just the start.
Why organizational culture is about empathy
Our final point on organizational culture is this: it’s really about empathy. It needs action, yes, in terms of activating independent reviews, regular ‘temperature checks’ with teams, exit interviews, and so on. But what all of these things boil down to is developing a better understanding of your people. Walking in their shoes. Feeling what they feel. Understanding their truth. Great organizational culture needs empathy for the experience of employees, so while the first point is about gathering that data the next is about really hearing it – and acting with empathy.
A good note to end on is probably that famous quote from Maya Angelou. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” People may not always enjoy every single aspect of their experience in your organization, but if you make them feel listened to, safe, supported, empowered, and able to make a positive difference then they will remember that. And that’s why organizational culture matters.