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What the buzz is up with all this talk on culture? What culture is and what culture is not.

If you've been on a job interview or been the one interviewing in the past 24 months, you may agree that there is an increase in all the talk around culture at work. You can't get on LinkedIn anymore without seeing a post, article, or comment related to work culture (including this one).

So what's up with all this talk? For starters, work culture is very important, in fact I would say it's one of the 4 core elements of any organization: vision, strategy, CULTURE, and execution. Secondly, in survey after survey of employees on what they value most at work, culture ranks higher than most other items.

But what exactly is culture? If you think it's ping pong tables and beanbags, you better keep reading. Failure to understand what exactly culture is and what it is not will lead to increased turnover and decreasing profits. To best articulate what culture is, let's start with what culture is not.

What Culture is Not:

Work Culture is not the same thing as Work Environment. Having ping pong tables, beanbags, and casual dress codes are wonderful if that is what drives productivity for your organization, but they are not considered components of a work culture. A good rule of thumb for determining if something is part of work culture or work environment is if you can touch it, it's probably not work culture.

Work Culture is not the same thing as Fringe Benefits. Fringe benefits refer to extra benefits supplementing one's salary. Think bonus, company car, gym membership. Today's workforce enjoys a variety of fringe benefits that have gained popularity over recent years due to ongoing competition, among companies, for the best labor.

Flex time, paternity leave, working from home hours, Yoga classes, and in-house massages are among some of the trendier fringe benefits being offered at companies today, however, you are mistaken if you think these are components of work culture. The rule of thumb on this one is if something offers a short term or temporary gain, and or can be taken away at anytime, it's most likely a fringe benefit. Another great term for fringe benefits is entitlements. If by working at Company A, you receive blank, consider blank an entitlement (fringe benefit).

Work Culture is not a feeling or state of being. If someone tells you they have a happy work culture or a laid back work culture, that person is not informed on what culture is and what culture is not. You can certainly have a feeling about your work culture (like feeling proud) but culture is not the feeling.

Culture is not designed to make people feel good. People feel good at work when they experience good leadership, have a positive work environment, and have fringe benefits that match their needs and wants. Rule of thumb on this one is to ask yourself why you feel the way that you do. If the reason is leadership, environment, or benefits, then it's not culture.

Most companies are very good about talking about their environment, fringe benefits, and the way their employees feel (ever see a post from a company when they are acknowledged as a Best Places to Work For). Some companies are good at talking about their culture.

Work Culture Is:

Work Culture is a System. Work culture is a designed, deliberate, and measurable system. It's a system of beliefs that drive winning behaviors. Work culture is designed to drive behaviors that execute strategy. It is deliberate in the sense that leaders deliberated on what their belief system would be and would it not be.

Many companies communicate their belief system in the form of core values. Core value statements are a nice touch, however culture lives in the behaviors of the believers. Customers experience cultures, they don't experience culture statements. You can measure culture by the behaviors of those within it.

Having core value statements/posters is like wearing apparel of your favorite sports teams. Think of two individuals standing side by side who are fully decked out in NY Yankees apparel. One is a fan and one is a fake. How can you tell? From looking at them, you can't. But once you start talking to them or following them around for days you will start to learn who is who by experiencing their behaviors. Work culture is the same- don't be fooled by fancy core value statements and posters.

My tip for defining your system of beliefs is to look at where you're going verse where you're at. Don't try to write a system of beliefs based on who you have or who you think you are. Write a system of beliefs based on this question: If we are going to execute our mission we need to be/do ________ ? Also, keep in mind the more beliefs that you have, the more "watered-down" your belief system is.

Below are two systems of beliefs. In which system do you think Kindness is more valued?

System 1


Integrity Over Performance

Honesty Above Performance

Kindness at All Times

Excellence in Everything

High Quality

Do 1 Thing Well

Communicate Openly

System 2




Work Culture is a Chosen Path. Unlike entitlements or benefits, work culture is not given to you. "Welcome to the company, the stapler is in the top drawer and your work culture is in the bottom drawer." This doesn't exist. Employees at all levels must make a decision on whether to align with the belief system or not. Alignment is measured by action (behaviors).

Companies with strong cultures don't just define their beliefs, they define winning behaviors within these beliefs. To align with the culture means more than aligning with the mission and system of beliefs, it means agreeing to execute the behaviors.

Work culture is not given to you, work culture is a product of decisions and behaviors. Behaviors define work culture, whether positive or negative. If the companies don't hold their people accountable to the agreed upon behaviors, then the culture is defined by undesirable behaviors. Think of companies where managers utilize fear tactics. I would argue in most cases, those tactics aren't deliberately agreed upon; fear tactics are a result of managers not being held accountable for their behaviors.

Work Culture is a Trainable Item. How did you learn how to ride a bike? Someone probably taught you. How did you learn how to swim? How about tying your shoes? Solve a math problem? Respect your elderst? You get it, as humans, we teach each other things so that we can do things together.

Work culture is no different than any of the above. You need to learn it, try it, practice it, and keep doing it. Many companies write people off for not being a "cultural fit." Where I do see the importance of getting to know job applicants well enough to determine if they would be a good fit for the organization or not, I caution companies to not overlook skills and experience for something that can be coached. I would say it's easier to coach on cultural beliefs than it is on skills, especially if you're hiring for a highly skilled position. Think about it, do you want to coach someone how to use Photoshop or how to Communicate Openly.

When I work with HR teams that are experiencing problems with sourcing labor and labor retention, one of the first things we look at is their system of beliefs. We look at how this impacts hiring. You'd be surprised how many companies have made no-hire decisions on cultural fit but couldn't articulate who they hired for cultural fit. Don't get me wrong, a lot of companies do a great job hiring for cultural fit as well as job fit, but I would venture to say most companies have so no to someone at sometime for cultural fit, when they could have coached that person on the system of beliefs in less than 30 days.

Work culture is a system of beliefs that drives winning behaviors. Employees either align with it or they don't; it's not a given. It's trainable, can be taught, and when used deliberately, can give your organization a major competitive advantage.

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