The Real Meaning of Company Culture

Dr. Matt Stollak explains that as we try to understand company culture, we must know that the components of it are often intangible.


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At Zenefits, we strive to bring you the most cutting edge and up to date news around people experience, work life balance, and optimizing your workflows for your most productive career. This fall, we’re excited to kick off a series of blog posts as written by HR industry experts and thought leaders. In the following post, Dr. Matt Stollak weighs in on the meaning of authentic company culture – we hope you enjoy it! 
HR professionals are busy, but many of us spend a lot of time trying to tackle fleeting concepts like constructs. Most, if not all, constructs in business and psychology are hypothetical (including such notions as satisfaction, equity, quality, and diversity). They are not ‘things.’ We cannot take one and place ‘it’ on a table for examination.
Note that hypothetical constructs can (and do) have biological, behavioral, cognitive, and affective correlates, causes, consequences, and dimensions. Rather, the distinguishing characteristic of a hypothetical construct is that it has no arbitrary definition. The definition must be ‘made up’ by theorists, and theorists can disagree as to what we should include in the description or if the construct even has any utility.
Which brings us to one of an organization’s favorite constructs — “culture.”

What is Culture?

A standard textbook definition might refer to culture as a system of shared meaning that consists of norms, artifacts, values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions.
That’s a pretty straightforward definition for something so ephemeral. Take values and beliefs, for example. Do employers walk the walk when it comes to a values statement? Do employees embrace the values espoused by the organizations? If you meet a random employee, can he or she enthusiastically repeat what the company stands for without hesitation? Are employees able to explain the values of the organization without the use of confusing internal jargon? If people are an essential resource, does the company pay people fairly and root out discrimination?
Culture is one of those things where you know it when you see it. Most often, employees feel in their bones when it isn’t working. So how do we drill deeper and define a healthy, workable culture?

Healthy Cultures on Display

One aspect of culture that is often ignored and underestimated is the role of kismet. The culture of your organization is the consequence of sheer luck. Lots of decisions that could have had disastrous consequences if they went in a different direction.
Could you imagine seeing Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly instead of Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future?” Tom Selleck as the dashing Indiana Jones, instead of Harrison Ford, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” The phrase “Must See TV” was coined at random from a guy who worked at NBC named Dan Holm.  No research.  No focus groups. The culture at NBC enabled him to have the freedom to try out the phrase.
As with kismet, another underappreciated aspect of culture is alchemy. In Warren Littlefield’s book “Top of the Rock,” John Wells, creator of “ER,” was quoted as saying, “There’s an alchemy to TV, like anything else.” David Schwimmer echoes this statement:
Having been on the other side of it now in terms of directing and producing, to find one magical actor who is just right for the role is difficult enough, but to find six and then to have them actually have chemistry with each other is just kind of a miracle. I think we were just lucky. I looked at the five of them (the rest of the cast of Friends), I watched their work, and I thought, “Everyone is just so talented and perfect for their character.”  And they grew into their characters and enriched them and deepened them.
Human resources professionals may write phenomenal job descriptions, put together a killer recruiting ad, and place it in the right locales, but our recruiting pool is subject to the whims of those who see it and apply. The choice we make at the end of who to hire is a crapshoot.
The daily reality of culture is similar. If we relocate our company from Green Bay, WI to Boise, ID, bring all the employees along and conduct the same work, it is unlikely that the same feelings of belongingness will carry over. We need kismet and alchemy to enhance and amplify an organization’s missions, values, and beliefs.

So What, Exactly, is Culture?

Culture, quite simply, is temporal. The real meaning of company culture is of its time and place. Those leaders and HR professionals who don’t take the time to reflect on their organizations and consider hypothetical constructs are missing out on an opportunity to improve the culture and, ultimately, the productivity of their companies.


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