Company culture is an interesting topic. It’s often mentioned as being the heart of a company, its soul, or its DNA; management guru Peter Drucker is quoted as saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and it’s often looked upon as a powerful differentiator and competitive advantage. And while it’s relatively easy to spot a good one – and just as easy to spot a bad one – many organizations struggle with it. They struggle with how to create it, manage it, foster it, and when they suddenly realize that their culture needs fixing, they struggle with how to turn it around. 

When you walk into many organizations, particularly those who serve the public, one of the first outward signs of that organization’s culture is their mission statement, often followed by a vision statement or guiding principles, and a list of the core values that they say they live by. However, in daily practice, a misalignment often exists between those statements and the employees who supposedly embody and emulate them every day. So why is it that often times the culture a company portrays is so different than the one they actually have?

To get to that answer first requires some clarity on what culture means to an organization, where it originates, and who owns it. Culture does not appear suddenly upon reading a mission statement like some magical incantation, nor does poor behavior disappear overnight upon introducing core values. Culture is about behavior, first and foremost, and that behavior starts and ends with employees. Employee behavior creates and contributes to the overall culture, and is as important an accountability as anything else in their job description.

That employee behavior, whether it’s good or bad, is rooted in what that individual thinks and feels. This is why it’s crucial at the beginning to assess new hires for how they will impact the company culture in terms of fit. Too many organizations fail to do a proper job of this, choosing instead to spend the majority of the time discussing and evaluating a candidate’s skills and level of experience. This approach inevitably leads to an “inherited culture” – where, by default, the culture winds up being the end result of everyone’s attitude, opinions and beliefs – again, both good and bad. Adopting this method carries with it significant risk, for as competent as the employees may be, their teamwork may not reach optimal levels, company innovation may lag, and passion may be nonexistent. Such companies also find that as they grow and expand, their culture problems grow proportional to the size of their workforce.

However, creating a company culture cannot be done by simply borrowing someone else’s. There is no ‘one size fits all,’ and what works well for one company may not suit another. Companies must look inward to define what cultural elements are important to them, and communicate them effectively to their employees through their own daily actions. In addition, any activities designed to promote and strengthen the culture are best developed with direct employee input and participation. History is littered with ‘great ideas’ developed solely by management and presented to employees after the fact – a sure-fire guarantee that the idea will fail to stick.

The impact of company culture can be felt early on, and can be a strong influencer and motivator (or de-motivator) on employees. New hires are particularly susceptible, as they are keenly aware of the obvious and subtle cues that speak directly to the underlying culture. Do employees talk negatively about the company or its leaders under their breath? Does everyone look and feel energized and engaged in their work? Are people genuinely interested in helping others to succeed? Employees are the daily ambassadors of company culture, and must be fully aware of the role they play in setting the right example. For startups and other new companies who are ready to start hiring, it’s crucial to note that a company’s culture begins to form with these first few hires.

In all too many cases, however, a company’s culture turns out to be disappointing at the very least, and negative to toxic at its very worst. Once this critical mass is reached, the company experiences widespread symptoms of the unrest that has likely been brewing, unattended, for some time – increases in resignations, more frequent absences, and visible signs of employee stress and discontent, to name a few. At this point, ignoring the issues any longer will further erode and damage the company’s culture, and immediate management intervention is a prudent step to take. To create a workable and sustainable solution to the culture issues, employees must be at the table – revisiting their mission, vision, and core values, and unearthing the root causes along with their management counterparts in a holistic and collaborative atmosphere.

In this time of increased competition, razor thin margins, and the pressure to out-innovate the next guy, companies would do well to look at the power of their company culture as the unique advantage that it is. A strong culture can yield significant dividends that can positively impact a company at all levels, provided it’s genuine, nurtured, and embraced by all employees.

Keith Kitani is CEO of GuideSpark, an employee communication and engagement company.

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