Since the mid-2000s, “company culture” has remained a top buzzword among leadership and HR elites—but for all that buzz, “great” workplace cultures remain elusive. Most definitions include some language about a set of shared attitudes, values, beliefs, goals, etc. But when we rely on such vague terms, it’s difficult to pinpoint strategies that actually work. A survey of recent company culture headlines featured articles on building a “positive” culture, the possibility of culture-as-a-service“surprise” culture, using culture to fuel innovationagility, and security, and of course, avoiding the worst: a toxic culture. It seems that culture can mean anything we want it to, as long as it’s unique, exciting, and/or exotic. I can say that the few companies that do have it figured out are really onto something, and for everyone else, it’s usually a “know it when I see it” situation. It becomes a lie and this article will not only point out why, but it will also touch on how below the surface concepts can be applied to develop real cultures.

What Company Culture Isn’t

When the idea of “fun” company cultures first started circulating, I did a lot of research; I thought it might be the answer to how out of place I felt in one company after another. (You can read the whole story in my forthcoming book, Leading Below the Surface!) To make a long story short, I quickly found that “cultures of fun” were amongst the many corporate lies I experienced in my career.

A few truth bombs from my research and experiences:

  • Artifacts like ping pong tables, “fun” group activities, high pay, and happy hours do not make a culture.
  • There is objectively no such thing as a “great” culture. (Great for whom? For what?)
  • Most of the time when we are talking about culture, we are talking about the surface level. It’s all branding, perks, benefits, and the bells and whistles that are highly visible to people on the outside looking in.
  • On the inside, companies with thriving surface cultures are often just as exclusive, competitive, and lonely as everywhere else.

What’s ironic is that cultures have been around long before business; the idea of culture is as old as humanity itself. We all share attitudes, values, beliefs, goals, etc. with people who live in the same region, share a common ancestry, and even belong to similar organizations. Why is it so hard to experience something similar at work? It’s one thing to narrow down a few core values and write a mission statement, but it’s another thing completely to see those things come to life in your team.

Culture Begins with Belonging

A strong culture is built on the daily actions of your team, so day-to-day interactions play a huge role in shifting both team and organizational culture. The problem with starting at the surface level, or trying to single-handedly mold your culture into what you want it to be, is the risk of alienating team members who don’t see themselves in the culture you are trying to mandate. For example, let’s use developing cultural values as an example considering this is a popular starting point. If you cultivate a sense of belonging first and approach your values as a two-way street, your employees will be much more likely to share these values and will adapt their behaviors accordingly. Similar to day-to-day leadership, if you want to change your culture, you have to get below the culture surface. This involves first accessing what your culture truly is. You may be wondering how you can do this. Well, you can start by contemplating the following questions:

  • What are the day-to-day experiences of employees?
  • What drives employees to succeed, and what makes them feel valued?
  • How would you describe your current culture?
  • Who feels misunderstood or “othered” within your current culture?
  • How do things really get done?

As I say in the book, “you can’t truly understand, mold, or change your culture if you are operating at a surface level.” When individual experiences and beliefs start aligning across the organization, you’ll know your culture is gaining momentum. Conversely, if you don’t truly access your culture, your organization will be perpetuating the “great culture” lie.

Getting Below the Culture Surface

I dedicated an entire Leading Below the Surface chapter to organizational culture because I know firsthand that no matter what level you are at in your organization, you have the capacity to truly access your culture whether you like it or not. What I’ve actually found is that people who are either in othered groups or in lower ranks truly access culture more accurately than folks who are not. This is because we can’t avoid it. We experience the “great culture” lie more frequently (and intensely), especially in situations when organizations claim they are “great” but yet we aren’t even experiencing basic psychological safety at work. It invades our lives.

Leading Below the Surface digs deeper into culture levels, how to know which one you are on, and how to truly access your culture. Once you choose to truly access your culture, you can learn how to move forward by reading Leading Below the Surface. Order your copy on Amazon now and explore these free tools for assessing and improving your DEIB initiatives in the meantime!