As a candidate, I always ask potential employers, "how would you describe the culture."
Cultural fit is critical. Working somewhere that fits well with my moral compass enables me to bring my authentic self to work and perform better. Where culture is well-defined, it helps everyone pull in the same direction; hence "culture eats strategy for breakfast."
The example I use is JFK visiting the NASA space station. The story goes that he spoke to a janitor and asked them what they were doing; the janitor replied that he was helping to put a man on the moon. He got it. He knew what NASA's mission was, and he felt that what he was doing was helping towards that end game – the shared goal drove him.
Culture matters. Accenture's report Getting to Equal 2020: the Hidden Value of Culture Makers found that 79% of women and 65% of men believe workplace culture is critical to helping them thrive in the workplace and that most leaders (63%) believe an inclusive workplace culture is vital to the success of their business.
But what is culture? How does it benefit organisations and employees? Does it matter?
What is company culture?
According to Harvard Business Review, company culture encompasses the attitudes and behaviours of a company and its employees; culture is "consistent, observable patterns of behaviour in organisations."
You can see it in the way people interact, their values, and their decisions. Culture includes the work environment, mission, leadership styles, ethics, and goals.
Where there's a strong culture, employee engagement is higher, as is retention, and there are firm financial benefits. As Culture 500 says, "A vibrant culture can not only keep employees happy — it can also be the difference between financial success and failure."
What are the benefits of investing in company culture?
In companies that recognise culture as a powerful tool, revenues increased four times faster.
According to Harvard Business Professor John Kotter, job creation rates grew seven times faster, profits climbed 750% higher, and customer satisfaction doubled.
A healthy company culture can turbocharge corporate performance
Research finds that a "healthy company culture can turbocharge corporate performance." MIT Sloan Review found that nine out of ten believe improving corporate culture would increase their company's value. In addition, nearly 80% put culture among the five most important factors driving their company's valuation.
What makes a good company culture?
No two cultures are the same. However, a large-scale research project points to cultural values that make for success. CultureX conducted large-scale research into the corporate culture in top companies using a data set of 1.4 million employee reviews from Glassdoor.
The big nine cultural values it identified were:
Cultural values: DEI and flexible working
Many of these values speak to a culture of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, notably respect for others and Diversity. The acid test for DEI is being able to bring our authentic selves to work. Of course, we don't behave within the workplace the same way we would say at a gathering of family or friends – but we're not robots, either.
Human beings have partners, children, dogs, caring responsibilities, menopausal symptoms, long-term conditions, varying degrees of mental health etc. I tick quite a lot of those boxes (as well as dressing like a bit of a hippie). In addition, we have identities grounded in our ethnicity, family relationships, gender identity, and sexuality.
Human beings have partners, children, dogs, caring responsibilities, varying degrees of mental health etc.
An organisation that is genuinely open to workplace diversity will benefit; in its report Getting to Equal, the Disability Inclusion Advantage Accenture identified a series of Disability Inclusion Champions from the Disability Equality Index (Disability: IN).
Disability Inclusion Champions were, on average, two times more likely to outperform their peers in terms of total shareholder returns compared with the rest of the sample.
Those who had improved their DEI score over time (Improvers) were four times more likely to have total shareholder returns that outperformed their peers. On average, Improvers' total shareholders' returns outperform industry peers by 53 per cent, while other companies outperform their peers by only 4 per cent.
Cultural fit: hiring for growth
However, many organisations default to hiring "people like us" and write people off at the interview stage." As Harvard Business Review notes: "When managers think about hiring for cultural fit, they focus almost exclusively on whether candidates reflect the values, norms, and behaviours of the team or organisation as it currently exists."
The article continues: "They often fail to consider cultural adaptability—the ability to rapidly learn and conform to organisational cultural norms as they change over time."
Using Big Data processing, researchers mined digital traces of workplace culture in emails, Slack messages, and Glassdoor reviews to see how culture impacts thoughts and behaviours at work, exploring the language employees use.
"They often fail to consider cultural adaptability—the ability to rapidly learn and conform to organisational cultural norms as they change over time."
Working with a mid-sized organisation, they discovered that employees who were able to adapt (adapters) were more successful than those with a high level of cultural fit.
"These cultural "adapters" were better able to maintain fit when cultural norms changed or evolved, which is common in organisations operating in fast-moving, dynamic environments," said the report by Harvard Business Review.
I've worked within organisations where the pace of change has been fast. It's unsettling, but the people that do it best bring their employees with them, keeping channels of communication open and involving them in discussions.
Fitting in: measurement – and gut reactions
Listening to employees is vital. As a result, pulse and engagement surveys have become increasingly popular. Hence, software tools such as Culture Amp, WorkDay Peakon, Leapsome and many others allow employees to provide anonymised feedback.
Exit interviews, social media and staff turnover are other measures.
Often there's a disconnect between employers' and employees' views on culture.
For example, Accenture found that nearly three-quarters of leaders (70%) feel they create empowering environments where people have a sense of belonging, yet only two-fifths (40%) of employees agree.
The proportion of employees who do not feel included in their organisations is 9x higher than leaders believe (18% vs 2%, respectively).
Additionally, the proportion of employees who do not feel included in their organisations is 9x higher than leaders believe (18% vs 2%, respectively).
Surveys are no substitute for a culture that encourages open, adult-to-adult communications between employees and their line managers – and change can only happen if leaders, HR managers, and others hear what employees are saying and act on it.
Maybe it's my INFJ profile, but I think you can feel it. Sometimes, something just feels "off", and you should listen to your gut. I recall being in an office and spending an afternoon as part of the interview process. Everyone seemed friendly, but there was a point where it was as if the shutters came down, and I was no longer in the running.
I'm not sure what happened. Probably, nothing, the company didn't say. I didn't fit what they were looking for, and, given the experience, they weren't right for me, either.
Conversely, another old Boss told me she specifically hired me because I was unlike her. I brought something to the organisation she didn't. That has stayed with me. It showed faith and bravery and it turned out we complimented each others' skills.
What's a good culture?
The top of the list is a spirit of openness and honesty. That means during periods of change and adaptation, everyone has a voice. It brings people with you, and where there's a vacuum, some disgruntled employee often fills the void.
Honesty at interview stages, is important, too. Some companies simply won't fit, or I wouldn't fit in – and that's fine. So, I'll keep asking. What's your culture?