While the concept of “culture” may seem vague and even be difficult to define for many people, experts tell a different story.
The methods and insights from the social sciences show that company culture is tangible, vitally important and everywhere around us — and the world of work is no exception. By tapping into the scientific study of culture, employers can better understand how it operates and how to improve company culture, making your unique culture work even better.
This type of understanding can also help when your company culture needs a little TLC. After all, culture is a living thing that changes continuously with the world around us. Growing pains are unavoidable, and snags and setbacks are normal. As with any issue, the key is to identify and troubleshoot the root problem before it gets too serious. Once you’ve done that, you can use some of the insights and ideas we’ve outlined in this feature article to improve your company culture.
In this article, we’ll cover what culture is, how to think about culture, why it matters, how to identify culture trouble and some common problems and solutions for how to improve company culture.
This troubleshooting guide provides the tools you need to detect common situations that can negatively impact culture, and offers guidelines on how to improve company culture. Don’t worry — with a little attention and some maintenance tips, your culture will become even stronger. Sign up below to access this article (and more!) on Lead with Indeed.
How to think about culture
What is culture, anyway?
Anthropologists and other social scientists define “culture” as the beliefs, customs and rituals by which people live in and make sense of their world. It guides how we act and communicate, shaping everything from art and food to religion and medicine. Culture informs everything we do, all the time — including the world of work.
Company culture is just what it sounds like, describing the culture of a company or workplace. Contrary to what some people may believe, and how many people act, this goes much deeper than surface level perks like snacks and happy hours. Culture is the heart and soul of a company, and shapes every aspect of daily life. This includes:
- Relationships and communication
- Dress codes
- Office floor plans
- Evaluation and feedback
- Mission and goals
While every culture is distinct, each includes three fundamental characteristics. Company culture is:
Culture only exists in the context of people. It's the daily reality of life at your company, created by the active participation of all employees.
There’s no such thing as a culture of one. A company’s culture is not restricted to the C-suite and it isn’t a top-down initiative. It includes the values, practices and beliefs shared by all members of the company at a fundamental level.
Culture is never “complete.” It should always be a work in progress — picking up new pieces, discarding old ones and changing with the times.
Why culture matters
Ideas about workplace culture changed a lot in recent decades. Digital technologies now let us connect with coworkers and teams around the world, and we often don’t even need to go to the office to get our jobs done. In today’s job market, it’s safe to say more cultural changes are on the horizon.
In recent years, younger generations of workers pushed employers to shift their cultures — and brought big changes. Generation Z and millennials balked at traditional ideas of the workplace, and their desire for work-life balance shifted many traditional norms and expectations. Remote and flexible schedules became increasingly common in some sectors, as did a variety of perks that were once almost unheard of, like standing desks and tuition assistance programs.
Whether or not these changes will persist over the long term, remember: company culture goes far beyond perks. It's also distinct from employer brand: how your company is perceived from the outside. Culture speaks to the day-to-day reality of a company, and what it feels like to be part of it. It's a living, breathing thing, and to thrive, it must be nurtured.
When it comes to attracting and hiring talent, company culture is always important. In slow job markets, it can provide the sense of inclusion, belonging and transparency needed to make candidates feel confident making a move or trying something new. During boom times, it sets one great offer apart from the pack. Culture may not be listed on your offer letter, yet it's on everyone’s mind as they consider their next opportunity. And it's often a deciding factor in whether talent sticks around.
Identify culture trouble before it's too late
When a company’s culture is strong and positive, everything flows. When it struggles, employees feel it immediately. A weak or negative company culture has some telltale symptoms that will get worse if they aren’t addressed, leading to less engagement, lower productivity and higher turnover.
What's more, a culture crisis can turn away potential new hires. We live in an age of social media and online reviews, and company culture has become an important factor for job seekers when researching potential employers. Word spreads quickly, and a negative reputation is hard to fix — so it’s important to address any problems from the start.
No matter the job market, it’s always a good time to make sure your company culture is strong and vibrant.
Culture trouble sometimes lurks beneath the surface, so it’s useful to conduct an analysis of your internal company culture to spot issues before they get out of control. Here are some common culprits to consider:
Unsound company mission
If a company’s mission is unclear or outdated, employees can lose sight of why they’re there, making buy-in difficult and contributing to disengagement.
A surefire sign of a crisis is when employees feel like they can’t speak up or provide meaningful feedback. Even worse is when they do speak up, but feel disrespected or dismissed.
Breakdown in trust
This might involve a lack of transparency from leaders; favoritism; gossip; or team members being dishonest or elusive, rather than addressing problems head-on. It's a pernicious problem that can cause suspicion and resentment.
Lack of inclusivity
Your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion can speak volumes about its culture. If diversity is not prioritized in hiring, or if employees with different backgrounds and interests aren't included in all activities, seek to remedy that — whether it's based on gender; race/ethnicity; age; sexuality; disability; being a working parent; and so on.
Inadequate career development opportunities
Companies with a strong culture are excited to help workers develop and grow. Those with a weak culture focus on current projects over future potential. Employees will look elsewhere for a workplace that offers a clear path to advancement or training/educational opportunities.
Disconnect between public and private
Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk; ensure the culture you show the outside world matches what employees see, feel and experience on the inside. New hires who see a disconnect are unlikely to stick around.
A revolving door is one of the surest signs of a company culture in trouble, especially in today’s job market. Employees know they don’t need to put up with a negative culture, and they likely have other options.
Signs of a culture under stress
The following red flags indicate potential stress to your company culture and can wear down the system. They don't necessarily mean it's time for an SOS, but if your company is experiencing them, monitor your culture closely for any changes in condition — and, if possible, work to mitigate these stressors moving forward:
Rapid expansion or contraction
Growing pains are inevitable during times of quick expansion, such as when new and urgent staffing needs arise. Ensure all new teams and hires have a clear view of your company culture and support your mission. Similarly, during downturns companies might be obliged to furlough or even lay off employees, which can be scary for everyone. A culture that prioritizes transparency and open communication from leadership can help offset the negative impact on company culture, and reassure employees as they weather the storm.
Changes in leadership
Each leader brings a unique vision and experience to a company, so management changes can pull your culture in different directions. New leadership should work with existing team members to ensure their insights and goals mesh with established ones and to help promote buy-in.
Remote versus in-office employees
Companies with both remote and onsite employees face specific hurdles. Your culture needs to be especially strong to encompass employees at different locations. It must be clearly communicated to remote workers, and they need to feel like a part of it.
Shift in company goals and mission
Companies change, and that’s okay. If this means the broader mission also needs to be altered, it’s important to be transparent and open with employees. Give everyone a clear understanding of their shared goals and purpose — both present and future.
Troubleshooting common culture problems
If you feel that your culture needs help, don’t despair! As with any bug in the system, troubleshooting is the key to getting the culture back on track. Here are some of the most common culture troubles plus targeted fixes. Does your company suffer from any of these bugs? If so, just follow our troubleshooting guide to nip culture problems in the bud — before they become more serious!
Problem: Mission needs help or lacks employee buy-in
Solution: Evaluate whether your company’s stated values match your values in practice. Ask employees whether the mission is clear, and if they understand how their work contributes to this bigger goal.
Anonymous engagement surveys are a useful tool to gauge how employees really feel and what needs to change — so you can take action. Consider holding team or company meetings to discuss the state of the mission, and be sure to clearly communicate shared goals and values.
Problem: Communication gone haywire
Solution: Take a closer look at your company’s communication style. If you don’t already, it’s time to prioritize “bottom-up listening,” where employees at all levels feel heard by managers and leaders. To treat communication troubles, proactively engage workers with regular office hours, check-ins or participatory meetings.
Again, an engagement survey can offer invaluable insights into employee views on communication gaps and needs, giving management clear areas for improvement.
Problem: Insufficient transparency from management
Solution: Transparency creates trust, which is the building block of a strong culture. Employees want to know where they stand and what’s ahead for the company, so be open about any changes on the horizon. Communicate through meetings, emails and announcements, or perhaps through a company newsletter. When employees have the answers they need, they can rest easy and focus on their work.
Problem: Weak diversity and inclusion initiatives
Solution: Create and implement hiring targets to ensure a diverse, inclusive workforce. Think broadly about these efforts, factoring in religious beliefs and personal preferences in addition to gender, race, age, sexuality and disability.
Consider celebrating holidays or hosting events for different cultural traditions, and ensure activities are inclusive; for example, if you only host happy hours, you're excluding people who do not drink. Bring in diverse experts and speakers for trainings, workshops and talks. Finally, employee resource groups (ERGs) can give workers from underrepresented backgrounds a source of support and platform for advocacy, and build additional strength by welcoming others interested in supporting these aims.
Problem: Lack of cross-team collaboration
Solution: When teams work together, it creates new opportunities for employees to realize the company’s mission and hit key targets. Building connections across teams helps foster interpersonal relationships and collaboration, contributing to a more positive work culture. It also increases employees’ awareness of their colleagues’ unique expertise and talents, boosting potential for creativity and innovation.
Problem: Existing benefits don't meet employee needs
Solution: Make sure employees are receiving the benefits they need and, when possible, try to be competitive. Sometimes introducing new benefits like flexible schedules or remote options can make all the difference. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic gave many firms the experience of working-from-home. Could similar arrangements work long-term and, if so, would they help employees balance work and life? Adding new benefits doesn’t have to be costly, and will send a strong message that the company truly values its employees.
Problem: Lackluster career development efforts
Solution: Investing in employees sends a strong signal that you care. Make career development programs, trainings, online learning opportunities and workshops readily available to employees. This shows an interest not just in their current work products, but also in their long-term success. Actively encourage employees to grow their skills in ways that are meaningful to them.
Problem: Social activities aren’t fun and/or optional
Solution: After-work activities are especially appealing to Millennials and Gen Zers, with one catch: they shouldn’t be mandatory. Give employees the freedom to pick and choose which ones appeal to them and fit their schedules. Here, too, you can survey employees to find out what types of activities they enjoy doing to boost participation.
Maintenance tips to keep your culture running smoothly
Now that you know how to identify and tackle common problems with culture, how can you prevent them from recurring in the future? Do your research. Survey employees regularly to keep taking the pulse, and support closer communication and collaboration across different teams and levels of management. Remember: culture is always changing, so this will be an ongoing effort.
By revisiting The Science of Company Culture: A Troubleshooting Guide regularly, you can monitor any changes or shifting needs in your company — and fix any new issues before they escalate. With a strong, well-maintained company culture, your workers will thrive, too.