What is Culture?

There are various definitions of Organizational Culture. Gallup defines it as “how we do things around here.”1  Culture is not what you hope for – it is what employees actually experience. I remember many years ago a legal secretary described the heavy handedness of her boss. When I asked how she dealt with it, she admitted that she takes longer to get his work done. Welcome to the real world. It’s not hard to guess how she would describe the culture there.

Culture as a sign of the times

Many decades back, Jack Fordyce2 wrote about organizations where people felt they had no voice, where they longed to express themselves, where they believed in equality and struggled to transition from their democratic home life to their autocratic work life. When I realized he wrote this in the 70s, it became clear that this is not an era issue but rather a human one, but the digital era has more quickly and widely spread awareness of different types of culture, with continued interest in which type is associated with success.

Why Culture counts

Gallup published this data3 about those who strongly agree with “I feel connected to my organization’s culture”. They are:

  • 7 times as likely to be engaged at work
  • 2 times as likely to strongly agree they would recommend their organization as a great place to work
  • 68% less likely to feel burned out at work very often or always
  • 55% less likely to be watching for job opportunities or actively looking for another job

Those who have followed Gallup organizational research over the years will be very aware of the reported financial returns associated with getting culture right. So, how do you get Culture right?

Culture by design

There are three components of Culture:

  1. That which is DEFINED
  2. That which is STATED
  3. That which is EXPERIENCED

For culture to drive success, all three must align and must result in the right people doing the right things in the right way at the right time. On the other hand, all three can be aligned and the organization can fail to achieve its potential if the organizing structure suppresses rather than optimizes human contribution.


I favour the approach to Culture that derives from the organization Purpose: the reason the organization exists; the Value (not to be confused with values) it creates. From this, the essential success factors can be developed for Value creation to be optimized i.e. impact on customers, their customers, community, market, industry, and so on.

These success factors can include the way we do things around here, to ensure that human contribution and system performance optimizes the Purpose. This provides a common, overriding directive for diverse roles and functions.

As a reminder, Purpose is never what or how you do what you do, but rather, why you do it considering who benefits (which includes everyone outside the organization), in what way, and how those benefit flows on to other benefits. This is so that people get daily reminders of the impact of their work, which Dan Pink4 refers to as the Impact motivator (tapping into free performance enhancing drugs i.e. neurotransmitters, shown from research to more than double results.)

It makes sense that the definition of the Culture (as a modus operandi) is frequently revisited to work out if there is something missing and/or something superfluous.


Intrinsic organizational beliefs and culture descriptors are published e.g. on the organization’s intranet, and continuously referred to. (See how GitLab publishes its team ethos.5)

Stating the culture includes being painstaking when recruiting – the ‘Scare them away’ letter used by Swedish Call Centre, Mötesbokarna.6


What you see in the handbook and on the website is what people experience. One problem is that employees, managers, executives are people. They make mistakes – especially under pressure.

Culture is often on display when someone deviates from the agreed way of working. Usually, the person who deviates can’t easily see it in themselves but can immediately see when someone else deviates from what was agreed about “how we do things around here”. It is rarely a person’s intention to act outside of the collective agreement (especially if you get recruitment and advancement right.)

When this is not immediately dealt with, the costs are enormous. A client recently saw results skyrocket after this aspect was corrected, and the growth trajectory is continuing.

Getting Culture right

“Let’s agree.”

Those are two powerful words to bring collective strength to any endeavour. They set an organization on a path where the power of alignment and the strength of unity makes it easier to succeed in a competitive world. (This cohesion is surprisingly rare as organizations grow, perhaps due to the third point, above.)

Today, culture needs to be collectively owned and maintained – not left to the ‘executive team’. While the term “collective agreement” has legal connotations, I like the term as it relates to what Edgar Schein originally referred to as the psychological contract between employer and employee.7  Human beings are already conditioned to social contracts in all aspects of life – ‘grown up’ organizations know that a joint agreement is effective at shaping moment-by-moment decisions.

 You achieve a strong culture that drives success when you agree, as a whole organization, that:

  • the ‘designed’ culture will drive success (nothing more needs to be added and nothing more can be taken away). It spells out how people work together to optimize the achievement of the collective purpose.
  • people answer to each other about alignment with the agreed culture. (There is an agreed format to discuss deviations from the agreed culture but also an understanding that human beings are not perfect. Everyone is active in seeking continuous feedback.)
  • people report to their peers – individuals to immediate teams and teams to their department – on performance, progress/results and improvements at 90-day checkpoints.
  • examples of where individuals, teams and the organization are positively impacting others is continuously highlighted so that people stay connected to Purpose and their impact. The link between the culture and success is STATED and reinforced at the checkpoints.

This is team-driven success, where people are treated as adults and managers really are facilitators (not commanders) – where ‘together everyone achieves more’ within agreed ways of working. This is an enduring aspect of the role of culture in organization success and makes Culture even more relevant in a digital world which can be experienced as quite fleeting.


  1. Culture Drives Business. But what is it, really?
  2. Fordyce, J.K. Managing with People: A Manager’s Handbook of Organization Development Methods. Addison Wesley Publishing Company. January 1, 1971.
  3. What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Does It Matter?” Gallup.
  4. Purpose: Why we do what we do.” Dan Pink. 2013.
  5. The GitLab Handbook.
  6. The Scare them away letter.” Lisa Gill. Corporate Rebels. March 03, 2024
  7. Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Psychology (3rd Edition). Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1988. ISBN: 0136411924.


Tag/s:Business Transformation, Employee Experience, Organizational Change,