What Is Company Culture? An Essay on Alchemy and Kismet

Ask your employees and customers: What is company culture? If you are not confident of their answer, you have some work to do.

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At Zenefits, we strive to bring you the most cutting edge and up-to-date news about work-life balance, people experience and optimizing your workflows for your most productive career. As part of that effort, we commissioned a series of blog posts 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 tackling 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 whether 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.

What is company culture? 

Take values and beliefs, for example. Do employers walk the walk when it comes to a values statement? Does the entire team embrace the values espoused by an organization? 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 mission statement, company values, and their positive effect? If people are an essential resource, does the company pay people fairly, welcome new ideas, 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?

What does the culture of a company mean?

Determining what kind of organizational culture your office has, or what you would like it to be, is just the first step. It’s also important to consider what the effect will be. Are you trying to increase employee engagement and employee participation, or promote employee happiness? Or are you aiming to hire talented employees and increase retention? Or do you want to accomplish all of the above?

When you define company culture, you define who you are as a business.

Why is company culture important?

Corporate culture plays a major role in dictating interactions, both externally and internally. This means that non-employees, such as suppliers, competitors and potential customers, will likely base decisions on your organization’s culture.

Employees certainly will. They are familiar with, and part of, the existing culture and employee experience.  However, a company can shift its employees’ vision of their environment — and work ethic — by changing the organizational culture. Great company culture can have a positive impact on employee retention and attracting talent, among other things.

Creating a great workplace culture

“Great workplace is stunning colleagues. Great workplace is not espresso, lush benefits, sushi lunches, grand parties or nice offices. We do some of these things, but only if they are efficient at attracting and retaining stunning colleagues.”

“With the right people, instead of a culture of process adherence, we have a culture of creativity and self-discipline, freedom and responsibility.”

– Patty McCord, former chief talent officer for Netflix

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 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 the TV drama “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 is a crapshoot.

The daily reality of a company’s culture is similar. If we relocate our company from Green Bay, WI, to Boise, ID, bring all the team members along and conduct the same work, it is unlikely that they will experience the same feelings of belonging and shared values. We need kismet and alchemy to enhance and amplify an organization’s missions, values, and beliefs.

Building great corporate culture

“The best thing you can do for employees — a perk better than foosball or free sushi — is hire only ‘A’ players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.”

– Patty McCord, former chief talent officer for Netflix

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 to build a good company culture and, ultimately, increase company performance. 

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