What is Company Culture?

Guest Post by Ron Smedley

A company’s culture is its personality. It tells people how to do their work. It takes its signals from leaders. It underlies motivation, morale, creativity, and marketplace success. How do you manage it?


Company culture is the distinctive personality of the organization. It determines how members act, how energetically they contribute to teamwork, problem solving, innovation, customer service, productivity, and quality. It is a company’s culture that makes it safe (or not safe) for a person, division or the whole company to raise issues and solve problems, to act on new opportunities, or to move in new, creative directions. A company’s culture is often at the root of difficult people-related problems such as motivation, morale, absenteeism, communication, teamwork, retention, injuries, and insurance claims.


Because a company’s culture affects everything in it—including profit—culture is the real bottom line. A company with a well-developed culture, open to all that its members want to bring, easily outperforms competitors.


Culture and personality are similar. When people describe a national, regional, or organizational culture, they use words that can apply to a person. For example, we might say that a culture is “friendly” or “tough.” It might be “driven and aggressive.” It might be “active,” “analytical,” or “open.”


Culture Is Not Separate from the Company


We talk as if a person has a personality, and a company has a culture. But people and companies don’t really have a separate thing called a personality or a culture. A person comes as whole cloth. A person is a person. Similarly, a company does not have part of itself called its culture. A company is a culture. Also, just as a person is not a problem—though sometimes what a person does may be a problem to others—so a culture is not a problem. A culture is what it is.


A company culture contains everything that makes up the organization and how all the parts work together. It contains equipment and hardware; processes and software; the authority, reporting and control structures; communications and relationships; and the nature and quality of members’ experiences.


Cultures Tell Us How to Behave


As we matured from infancy to adulthood, it was our culture, in and outside of the home, that told us how to act. As human beings we are highly skilled at learning from social settings, recognizing almost immediately how we should behave. We know how to fit in, how to do what is needed.


If you want to understand a company’s culture, examine what people actually say and do. The work culture is the state or context for everything people are doing and why they are doing it; therefore it directs all that happens in the organization.


If people are open, forthright and engaged, you know that is the nature of the company’s culture. In contrast, if people are defensive, irresponsible, and passive, you also understand the company’s culture.

Newcomers Know the Company’s Culture Immediately

Members of an organization know the company culture by being part of it. They experience trust and relationships directly. They know how open, involved and motivated they feel.

In fact, before we have even formally joined a company, we know from our experiences (during the interview process and in other ways) the kind of organization we are joining. Once we have joined, it doesn’t take more than a few days—a few weeks at most—for us to know just what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to say. As members of the most socialized of all the species on earth, we are masters at fitting in—maestros of social adaptation.


Most Company Cultures Are Poorly Developed


Gallup provided a glimpse of the national picture of company cultures in their poll of U.S. companies reported in USA Today, 5/20/2001:


  • 26 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs.
  • 55 percent of employees have no enthusiasm for their work.
  • 19 percent are so uninterested or negative about their work that they poison the workplace to the point that companies might be better off if they called in sick.


Apparently 74 (55 + 19) percent of employees work in poorly developed company cultures.


The Culture Reflects the Leadership Style


People look to their leaders for signals on how to behave. For example, although most people want to be open and engaged, they will only be this way if they think their leaders, and the culture, want it. In any organization 80 percent of the members are very flexible. If the culture asks for it, these employees will be engaged, responsible, pleasant, and highly productive. Conversely, if they don’t think the culture wants them to be engaged, these same people can be closed, disengaged, irresponsible, unpleasant, and unproductive. The signals telling them which way to behave come largely from the company’s culture, which is established by the leadership.


Leaders Get the Cultures They Ask for


It is simple to build an engaging culture. If leaders want people to be engaged, they engage them. If leaders want people to be involved, they involve them. If managers want good communication and relationships, they communicate and establish good relationships. If leaders want people to be efficient and productive, they help employees understand their financial and production environment; that is, they give employees access to financial information in a form that relates to the employee’s immediate tasks.


Unfortunately, many leaders are reacting to today’s tough economic environment with more directives and tighter controls. This reaction from the top creates a culture that draws out, not engagement, but passive and even hostile behavior. It’s ironic that leadership’s response to a tough marketplace would produce the opposite of what they want, which is for everyone to be engaged, creative, and committed.


A Well-developed Culture Is Highly Profitable


Leaders can directly change their workplace culture by changing how they do what they do. Everybody will see the change, like it, and respond. As you create a workplace where members can feel empowered within their roles, high performance will follow. A solid culture helps mold an organization’s bottom line…dramatically.


About the author:


Ron Smedley is president of Synergistic Resource Associates, a full-service human resource/development consulting group that works directly with both marketplace and ministry organizations.  As a professional human resource generalist, Ron is often called upon in the area of labor law interpretation and policy/procedure writing with the focus on practically, strategically, and relationally synergizing the systems of the organization with the development of their leadership and employees.  Besides consulting full-time, Ron instructs graduate adult students at Biola University and Claremont Graduate Universities within leadership, performance management, personal and corporate conflict, human resource strategy and ethics courses.


Ron’s passion is seeing men, women and organizations grow beyond their paradigm and the “box” they so often place themselves within.  For questions or support surrounding this article or other people development areas, email him at ron.smedley@sraonline.net or call 714.993.5003. His office is located in Placentia, CA.


© Synergistic Resource Associates

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