A modish topic, but sometimes less emphasised, facet of success is company culture. Culture is a catchall term, but it comes down to how organisation systems are formed and maintained. It is social in origin and totalising in dissemination. That matters because humans are not innate; we produce and reproduce these systems through learned behaviour, mirroring, and various institutions. Our institutionality may be the most significant in this regard and comprises hierarchal and horizontal models within which mores, norms and values spread. Whether through family, friends, school, religion, creative arts, hobbies, sports, government, society, or work, we spend most of our lives practising and passing on culture.
A parallax view
Defining company culture (also known as corporate or organisational culture) can be equally ambiguous. According to the Harvard Business Review, culture encompasses an entity’s collective attitudes, beliefs, logic, mission, ethics and values, plus the actions and behaviours that result. Because companies tend to function from the top down—i.e., from superiors to subordinates—company culture should equally emphasise how employees relate to the above.
At the executive level, culture leans toward leadership style, management and order. Although these facets relate directly to company culture, they have more to do with the structure of the entity rather than its employees. Shifting the view from bottom to top makes it possible to locate unseen or underutilised areas for improvement. This perspective emphasises an entity’s ‘feel’ and ‘philosophy.’ As a phenomenon, parallax is the change in an object’s position due to a change in the observer’s line of sight. Since we are using this term conceptually, it is a gap that may appear between strategic design and unexamined effects when altering the angle of observation.
To ascertain and harness what are, in essence, intangibles, we must therefore understand that company culture is potentially a limitless category. It entails compensation and safety, first and foremost. However, other factors include buy-in, intensity, morale, professionalism, the physical space, and employees’ responses to their quotidian conditions and your core principles.
Management’s ability to check the ‘temperature of the room’ and its reflexivity is essential. Every employee (to some degree) impacts functionality, planning, and overall performance. What is more, many intangible qualities do have material effects. For instance, research shows that companies with high-pressure work environments spend up to 50% more on health care than other organisations. We are talking about people as well as the bottom line.
Ecologies of communication
Company Culture is rooted in its social ecosystems and transmitted vis-à-vis the organisation and practices of a workplace. Every dialogical and structural component—e.g., discourse, the frequency and quality of communication, the chain of command, incentives, sanctions, etc.—augments or detracts from a sense of value. The refrain, ‘am I valued,’ is at the heart of many conversations, and employees communicate with each other directly and indirectly throughout the day. They communicate with clients and customers even more. What underpins these conversations—ultimately, meaning.
Operationally, company culture is ‘how tasks are executed’ and ‘how a workplace is managed.’ Meaning, however, has more to do with ‘how a workplace self-manages,’ which reflects the employees’ experiences, and ‘how management’s actions and ideals are received below.’ Critically, the former has much to do with a belief in the task at hand, that this or this role is vital, and the latter is affected by their experience by seeing things in practice, not just hearing them in rhetoric.
Company culture is felt most acutely at the bottom and may be sensed even by those outside a company’s walls. Clients and customers can also check the dial. To map or measure culture requires then formal and informal metrics. Besides reading the numbers, which can conceal certain aspects, the most direct way to get a feel for the workplace experience is to ask the employees themselves. Surveys can be a highly effective tool if written well and delivered in a way that communicates this is a priority.
Do not be fooled by shortcuts or rely only on incentives. Perks like extra vacation time do not matter if it entails burnout. Look at things long-term. Innovative policies that expand points of teamwork can create camaraderie. While offering merit-based leadership opportunities promotes ownership. These experiential elements contribute directly to company culture and help concretise a healthier workplace. There is no substitute for employees who believes in what they are doing, which begins during the hiring process, or their positive daily experience after that. If this criterion is missing, they must believe that change is possible. That belief comes from above.
Interpreting the numbers
Company culture affects performance on metrics such as finances, retention, innovation and customer service. Data compiled by Great Place To Work and FTSE Russell distills that the annual returns for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For have made a cumulative return of 1,709% since 1998, compared to a 526% return for the Russell 3000 Index. The ‘100 Best index’ outperformed the broader market by 16.5%, returning 37.4% compared to a 20.9% return for the Russell 3000 Index in 2020.
Gallup polls indicate that only 34% (and falling) of American workers are actively engaged with their work, a part of a longer decline since Covid. It seems unwise to assume that such levels of disengagement would not translate to client experience or customer service. It does. Related polls predict that customer slumps are likely to represent the next turn in a cycle defined by a record number of resignations and vacancies.
Among younger generations, retention figures centre around three key predictors: an organisation’s reputation, a sense of purpose, and a connection to one’s job. Further research by Great Place to Work reveals that Millennials are eleven times more likely to leave a company than Gen Xers if their needs are not met. Currently, those needs relate to wider experience and meaning. People want to be valued and feel engaged with what they are doing and, reciprocally, value wealth and lifestyle less enthusiastically.
Help your team stay invested in what they are doing. To this end, inclusive leadership behaviours and systems, enlarged platforms for sharing ideas, and receptiveness to change communicates meaning and engender a sense of ownership in what is at stake. Refrain from equating dissatisfaction purely with a lack of material gains. Although this Deloitte survey imparts that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe that company culture is decisive for success, there was a noticeable deviation regarding what factors are most important. Financial performance and competitive compensation took precedence at the executive level, but these were the poorest scoring factors below. For those looking up, healthy or candid communication, recognition, and access to leadership/management scored highest. What can we infer from this data? Feel matters. Philosophy matters. Possibility matters.
Company culture is the personality of a workplace. It is what someone would say regarding what it is like to work here, not in principle, but in actuality. That has lots to do with consistency and norms, but do not lose sight of the role of ethics and values. An organisation’s chief asset is talent. Constantly reiterate purpose and recognise people through company culture.
Remember, culture is shared. Employees who do not believe in what they or those above them are doing, who do not think that they—and not just their performance—matters, or worse, that they are locked into an unchanging situation have a hidden drag effect. The usual metrics do not easily show what potential productivity looks like under the right conditions. They show what is there, not what is possible. To that end, company culture, in particular, is prone to misinterpretation. It is not just about what is there. Equally, it is about what is missing. Find ways to gauge the situation as it stands and foster conditions that are more beneficial on a professional and personal basis.
Looking beyond the numbers, in Conscious Capitalism (2013), John Mackey, a cofounder of Whole Foods, and Raj Sisodia of Babson College point out that purpose-based workplaces are on the rise in the corporate world and society at large because they generate productivity as well as because customers increasingly gravitate to them. If all stakeholders matter, a company that values its employees is more likely to value its customers. Thus, meaning translates to inside performance as well as outside pull.
In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant (1926/1991: 98) intuits from the work of Aristotle, ‘we are what we repeatedly do.’ If his postulate is correct, and I believe it is, should that not have meaning? We can think of company culture similarly. We spend much of our lives at work. For that time to feel like a journey rather than a grind, our environment should feel responsive to our needs. Above all else, what you are doing has to have meaning.
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