We need it. We want it. We’ve got to have it. But for all of the rhetoric out there about company culture, how many of us really understand what it is?
“I know it when I see it” is not an excuse.
Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.
—Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos.com
Defining culture has been a problem ever since people first became aware that there’s more to being human than pure biology. Anthropologists have had a field day trying to articulate a definition. Many notable 19th and 20th century academics have their own theories about it. However, scholars tend to refer back to the classic definition of culture from one of the founding fathers of anthropology, Edward Tylor:
Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
If we break Tylor’s definition of culture down into component parts, we get a glimpse of what culture looks like in a workplace:
KNOWLEDGE The information, skills, and emotional intelligence that draw certain people towards specific companies and roles.
BELIEF Shared understanding of a common purpose and rationalization for completing work.
ART Work completed with a degree of refinement or particularly high order of thinking.
MORALS Ethical behavioral expectations both in the workplace and as an individual.
LAW Compliance with federal and state regulations.
CUSTOM Specific, repeatable traditions, attitudes, and actions that are shared amongst workers.
Culture is so incredibly important because it is the foundation for all future innovation. People with passion can change the world
—Brian Chesky, Airbnb
Together, do all of these pieces make a snapshot of the human experience of a work environment? Whether it’s the personality types of the specialists who are drawn to the work (hello, developers) or an environment heavily influenced by law (tax accounting much?), each aspect of culture is a gateway towards a deeper understanding of what makes a work environment unique. While not all factors feel equally relevant to the modern workplace (the 1871 definition, after all, was written for a different audience), there is one piece that feels especially relevant today: belief.
With today’s workplaces increasingly concerned about managing culture, belief is one of the greatest opportunities for improvement, and thus a critical piece of the work culture definition. Belief ranges from buy-in on a shared purpose to vehement passion to simply acknowledging that the job needs to get done. While most employers already hire for skill set and compliance with the law, for instance, people are just starting to learn that hiring for shared belief, passion, and purpose can make a significant difference in employee happiness and productivity.
When you can manage the shared beliefs of your employees — not mind control, but a visceral sense of what’s important and how to achieve your company’s purpose — you get 5 things:
Employees who are empowered to use their full skill set and engage in professional development (Knowledge)
Higher quality work and products, and a higher level of customer satisfaction (Art)
An engaged workforce that will actively advocate for your brand (not work against it) during and after employment (Morals)
Steadfast adherence to your most important rules (Law)
Regular social interactions and traditions that breed camaraderie amongst staff and customers (Custom)
Can we broadly apply Tylor’s definition of culture to 21st century workplaces? We wouldn’t recommend it. But as you begin to define company culture for your specific organization, it makes a great starting point. We all know culture is not the same as perks, and that everybody — and we mean everybody — views it a little differently.
With the importance of company culture on the rise, consider what it actually means to your company and what aspect belief plays in the work lives of your employees.
So, what’s your definition of company culture?