Culture 101: Definition of Workplace Culture

October 10, 2021 Jamie Notter

We started defining culture this way back in 2013, mostly to prove the point that culture CAN be easily and clearly defined:

Workplace culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and “stuff” that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued in an organization.

Here’s what we mean by that:

Words refers to the words you use to describe your culture. Humans understand the world through story, so choose your words carefully when describing your culture. Don’t be vague (we’re like a family here), be specific (we deeply value collaboration, most people here work on one or more cross-functional teams, if you’re the kind of person who likes to have their headphones in working solo, you won’t like it here).

Actions are the behaviors inside your organization, and (of course) actions speak louder than words. If the behaviors are different than the words, the behaviors win, so you have to actively manage that.

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Thoughts are the underlying assumptions, mental models, or beliefs people have about deeper issues like what motivates people, how work happens, etc. As with behaviors, these cause problems when they are inconsistent with our words, so sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper to expose and resolve that (e.g., when we all went remote, did anyone struggle with the underlying belief of “if I can’t see you you’re not working?”)

“Stuff” just refers to the tangible aspects of work, like dress code, office location, office design and decoration. Basically anything that is NOT human in your organization, but still makes it clear what’s valued.

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And that’s the key: what’s valued. Because what is valued in your organization is what drives behavior. That’s why culture is so important. You need to shape the words, actions, thoughts, and stuff to make it clear what is valued, and then you’ll get the behavior that causes you to win. Also note that I didn’t say “core values,” which are fine to have, but they are only useful if they make it crystal clear what is valued in a way that drives behavior (hint: “honesty and integrity” don’t drive behavior, just ask Enron or Wells Fargo).

That’s it. Culture is a tangible business tool that you can manage to drive growth and success.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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