Understanding business culture

Having a good company culture is important. That’s what we’re always being told, by the business books and corporate consultants. But what exactly does ‘culture’ actually mean, in a business sense – and why is it so crucial to your brand and to your employees? Here’s my take.

People power

A dictionary definition of the word ‘culture’ is an interesting place to start. One of the key meanings of the word is the ‘ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society, or the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group’. In this sense then, it’s easy to see why defining and understanding your company’s culture might be so critical – by this definition, business culture is essentially the way that your people think together, how they work together, and how they interact with each other on a daily basis. All of these behaviours, bundled together, create your company culture. They define what kind of company you are – and also what you will become, because the culture itself becomes self-perpetuating. The sort of people who make your company the way it is – the ones who define its culture – are exactly the kind of people who are attracted to working there in the first place.

And so what could be more important that this? Surely this definition suggests that properly understanding your culture, as a leader, means understanding exactly what makes your people tick – and knowing this, you could argue, is the key to understanding how to make all of these people come together to work towards achieving the goals you’ve set for the company.

Fertile ground

There’s another angle to this however – one that doesn’t place your people at the heart of the idea of ‘business culture’. Consider instead the biological meaning of ‘culture’ – a medium containing nutrients in which things can be grown. This definition has interesting implications for our idea of what a business ‘culture’ might be. If we think of a company in these terms, then the company itself – and not necessarily the people who work within it – becomes the culture. In this definition, it is essentially an environment in which the right conditions allow certain things – in this case people – to thrive.

And by separating the idea of culture out from the people who make up a company it is easy to see how the idea of brand is also closely connected to this concept. Think of an entrepreneur who sets up their own business. In many ways that original vision that they have for the company defines the ongoing culture of the business, even as it grows larger with time, and regardless of the people who join later. People join, people leave, but the essential culture of the business remains the same. Again, in this way it links more closely with the idea of the brand that defines a business’s products or services – it becomes another unique and differentiating mark of identity, that endures within a company’s DNA, in many ways separate from the people who come and go from the business. Looking at business culture in this way, you can see how your company’s people sustain and support the culture, but they don’t always define it.

A middle way

I personally think both of these definitions of business culture are a little wide of the mark. The first puts the job of creating a business culture solely in the hands of employees – your business culture is just the sum of the behaviours of the people you have working for you at any given time. The second definition is rather more abstract – defining the idea of culture as the business itself, the vision behind the company, that is linked closely to the founder’s original idea and to its brand identity. In this definition, the culture is an environment in which people grow, rather than something they directly influence.

The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. The way I see it, business cultures evolve over time. They start with the founder’s original vision – literally the foundations upon which the company is built – but they are also shaped by the people who join the business as it grows. Like successive owners adding their own personal touches to a house, your company’s culture is a rich, multi-layered entity, that develops into something much more complex over time – an interaction between the people who work for you, and the brand identity of the company itself, defined by the products and services you sell. Some people add something to your company culture, and some even leave a little bit of themselves behind if they leave – but everyone has a contribution to make, large or small.

That’s why understanding and defining what your company culture is can be so hard – but also so important – because it is the unifying idea that takes everyone who has ever interacted with your business over the years, links them with your brand, and creates something unique.

– Robert Weider 

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