Business Leadership Today

What Is Workplace Culture?


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Workplace culture has been a hot topic of late. With toxic workplace cultures driving turnover, it’s clear that culture has a profound impact on employees’ perceptions and can be the deciding factor for workers when it comes to staying or seeking out other job opportunities. 

Workplace culture is an organization’s personality, so to speak. It’s what makes a company unique, provides the context for everything it does, and unites its employees to work together toward a shared vision.

To understand the impact culture has on businesses, and the extent to which a winning culture can impact a business’s long-term success, we have to first understand what culture is and the various ways it can affect the employee experience.

Workplace culture refers to the system of shared attitudes, beliefs, priorities, and values within an organization that guides the behaviors of all employees. Leaders communicate and reinforce culture, which provides context for the organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategies and helps to shape employee perceptions. 

In this article, I’ll delve into the concept of workplace culture and how leaders can support a winning workplace culture that keeps employees engaged and motivated. 

What Is Workplace Culture?

Workplace culture can be difficult to define because there isn’t one generally accepted definition or a one-size-fits-all approach to building and managing culture.

At its most basic, workplace culture encompasses the shared attitudes, beliefs, priorities, and values within an organization that guides the behaviors of all employees. Workplace culture provides much-needed context for an organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategies. It helps employees not just understand the “how” of their jobs, it also helps them understand the “why,” which is essential for building engagement. 

Culture is the most important, yet often under-appreciated value driver of a company and has a tremendous impact on productivity, ethical compliance, innovation, performance, and long-term success.

Culture is the primary factor for determining how well an organization executes on every other aspect of organizational performance. It is also the most important competitive advantage an organization can have because it’s what makes an organization stand out from its competitors.

Companies often use terms like customer-focused, innovative, research-driven, or family-friendly to describe their cultures and provide insight into their values and priorities, but culture is about much more than these labels. Without policies, processes, communications, and strategies in place that support a customer-focused culture, for example, a customer-focused culture will not naturally develop within an organization.

How Leaders Shape Workplace Culture

Culture both impacts and is impacted by leaders. In fact, leaders impact culture more than any other factor. They impact culture by establishing and clarifying norms that guide employees’ behaviors, maintaining working conditions that are conducive to collaboration and high performance, encouraging accountability, and helping employees connect their work to the organization’s vision.  

In a recent article, Business Leadership Today contributors Mark S. Babbitt and S. Chris Edmonds explained the important role leaders play in guiding culture so that it continues to support a positive work environment: “Leaders build culture based on the productive, positive behaviors they reward. Leaders tear down culture based on the destructive, demeaning behaviors they tolerate.”

Leaders help to develop, shape, and influence organizational culture over time. Their actions and behaviors are, in turn, guided and influenced by organizational culture. If an organization’s culture is toxic, its leadership will be toxic. More on this in the next section.

Toxic Workplace Culture

A toxic workplace culture is a culture in which conflict is common and the work environment is negative because of unethical behaviors, a lack of inclusion, and disrespect. When toxic behaviors creep into the workplace and leadership tolerates them rather than dealing with them swiftly, it distorts an organization’s culture and quickly turns it toxic. Antagonistic, potentially abusive, working relationships develop and cause good employees to disengage from their work and even leave the organization. 

Due to the inhospitable environment and disrespectful behaviors that result from them, toxic workplace cultures can hurt engagement, retention, productivity, and performance, all of which can affect profits. 

Toxic workplace culture was the single best predictor of attrition during the first six months of the Great Resignation and was 10 times more powerful in predicting employee turnover than compensation. It is estimated that the employee turnover caused by a toxic workplace culture cost US employers nearly $50 billion per year before the start of the Great Resignation.

The best way to prevent toxic culture from invading your organization is to make sure you are doing your part as a leader to keep your culture positive and make it work for everyone. 

How To Manage Workplace Culture Efficiently

We know that everything a leader does helps or harms an organization’s culture, shaping it in both negative and positive ways that either build cultural buy-in or dismantle it. But how can leaders be intentional about how they develop and ingrain culture in their organizations and lead in ways that will impact the culture in positive ways?

Too often, the focus of management is results. While we want our businesses to achieve positive outcomes, we jeopardize our chances of sustainable success when we let the pursuit of short-term results negatively impact our cultures in the long term. 

In their book Good Comes First: How Today’s Leaders Create an Uncompromising Company Culture That Doesn’t Suck Babbitt and Edmonds make the case for a culture-first approach to leadership that equally values respect and results.

As Babbitt and Edmonds say, “Before we can begin working toward a culture where every human being experiences purposeful, fulfilling interactions—where they are respected and validated for their ideas, efforts, and contributions, daily—we must focus first on company culture.”

To achieve the positive business outcomes we want, we cannot focus on results at the expense of culture. Leaders are better able to achieve the business outcomes they want (and do so more sustainably) when they make culture a priority and foster a positive employee experience for all team members. 

The key is to be mindful of how the culture impacts employees, aware of aspects of it that may need to change, and intentional about how it evolves over time.

Culture should not only be developed in an authentic way, but it should be managed in an authentic way to produce long-term positive results. Here are 10 ways leaders can ensure they build positive cultures with strong employee buy-in: 

Refine and Reinforce Your Organization’s Mission and Vision

To get employees to buy in and be conservators of your organization’s culture, clearly define, regularly refine, and continually reinforce the organization’s mission and vision. The mission and vision serve as the foundation for the core values you will develop as a framework for culture. 

When employees understand the mission and the individual roles they play in helping to achieve the organization’s vision, it gives the work they do more purpose, which keeps them engaged and motivated. When interwoven with all aspects of a company’s strategy, including policies, procedures, benefits, and perks, culture will reflect an awareness of employee needs and connect the dots between the mission and the work employees do.

Consistently Model Core Values

Since organizational culture is embedded in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns, it is important to guide employees toward the behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns that you want to see more of in your organization through modeling core values.

When senior leadership demonstrates dedication to core values by modeling behaviors that align with these values, it guides employees toward similar behaviors. Setting an example for employees to follow and reinforcing core values regularly will keep employees always mindful of culture and how their behaviors align with the organization’s culture.

Build Trust

In order to keep culture always fresh in the minds of employees, trust in leadership is a necessity. Building trust with employees requires leaders to embrace conflict and crisis, rather than punishing dissent or burying conflict.

Marissa Levin, founder and CEO of Successful Culture says, “The organizations with the highest trust recognize that asking for help is a two-way street. The most emotionally connected leaders let their employees know that they need their help to build the best organizations possible.”

When employees trust leadership, they trust the organization’s culture to provide a satisfying and harmonious work environment for them. Leaders who continually work on trust-building are ensuring a strong workplace culture that will keep employees engaged. 

Set Clear, Attainable, and Measurable Goals

Setting clear, measurable goals that are aligned with core values helps employees gain a better understanding of the important role they play in the organization and how essential their jobs are to helping the organization realize its vision. This is another way to reinforce culture with teams while also boosting performance.

We recently sat down with author Stacey Barr and discussed the value of utilizing effective measurement and measuring actions, not people. Barr pointed out ways in which goals and measures can positively impact culture, saying  “Wherever we can encourage people to create their own measures that are aligned with the goals of the organization, we can positively change the company culture.”

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Demonstrate Care for Employees

The most important aspect of culture is the level of care it consistently demonstrates for employees. When leaders take care of employees, they feel more valued and are able to perform better. Ensuring employee well-being is a part of your culture is essential to their success. 

Understanding employees’ changing needs, especially during this era of constant change, and being aware of their need for a work-life balance that supports their mental and physical health is so important.

The most important part of a strong company culture is having a senior management team that truly cares about employees and understands their needs. Senior leadership should consistently demonstrate that care since all other aspects of company culture are improved when organizations put people first.

Maintain Alignment Between Philosophy and Practice

Leaders should constantly fine-tune culture. This means providing what employees need to succeed but also addressing inconsistencies between cultural philosophy and daily practice that could create a less-than-engaging environment for employees. 

It is your job as a leader to ensure you provide the ideal working conditions for employees to thrive. But it is also leadership’s role to identify and eliminate inconsistencies between cultural philosophy and daily practice that could create a toxic environment for employees. 

Policies and procedures should be revisited regularly to ensure there is alignment between the systems that have been implemented and core values. Inconsistencies between policies and core values can lead to a work environment that is toxic and undermines any efforts of senior leadership to maintain a people-focused culture. 

Deal Swiftly with Toxic Situations

Top leadership can ensure organizational culture stays true to a company’s mission, vision, and values by addressing toxic situations as soon as they arise so they don’t impact morale or cause irreparable damage to the positive culture leaders and their teams have worked to create.

Toxic situations can involve harassment, microaggressions, unequal treatment of staff members, or behaviors from senior management that devalue employees and make them feel expendable. These issues can do significant damage to organizational culture if they are not addressed swiftly. 

Give Feedback Regularly

Whether your feedback is praise for the accomplishments of an employee or a constructive critique of their performance, employees need feedback. Feedback is essential to maintaining a high-performing team of engaged employees and is a great way to reinforce cultural values. 

In a feedback-rich culture, employees receive regular, helpful feedback from direct supervisors. In turn, they are empowered and encouraged to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership. This can keep a healthy culture on track or help leaders see where improvements can be made.

Offer Learning and Development Opportunities

Because learning is essential for employees to develop new skills and find fulfillment in their work, companies that offer learning and development opportunities to their employees are laying the groundwork for long-term success with a team of engaged employees who do their jobs well and have cultural buy-in.

Whether it’s through onsite training, online courses, or just re-examining current processes and past mistakes in an effort to reinforce a continuous improvement mindset informed by core values, the value of providing these unique learning opportunities for employees to grow and develop is immeasurable.

Make Inclusion a Priority

Inclusion can be defined as the extent to which employees feel accepted, respected, and valued. It can also help gauge the extent to which employees feel encouraged to fully participate in the organization.

Part of culture management is ensuring your organization’s culture fosters an inclusive work environment in which employees feel appreciated for their unique traits and skills and comfortable showing up every day as their authentic selves.

An important, but often overlooked, aspect of culture management is regularly re-evaluating seemingly innocuous practices embedded in a company’s culture that could potentially make employees feel less welcome. Employees who feel a sense of belonging in the organization will experience more alignment between their values and the organization’s core values. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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