Culture in the Workplace

Workplace culture is one of the most talked about attributes of the work environment today. Although it is not easy to define, employers and employees alike strive to create a positive culture. Good culture in one organization may look different than  good culture in another. When hiring new employees, a key consideration is whether the candidate is a good cultural fit.

Culture is not a tangible object and may not be clearly spelled out, but it is an integral part of your everyday work environment. Culture affects all aspects of your work, including productivity, relationships, communication, and overall job satisfaction.

Culture can be made up of many variables. Like a personality, it is affected by multiple aspects such as values, life experience, upbringing, beliefs, background and mindsets.

It could be founded on the value system of the founders and management and it could be affected by current employees. It is made up of the characteristics of a group of people and results in an unwritten, unspoken set of rules for working together.

Although it is particularly influenced by the founders, executives and management team, every employee can have an impact on the development of their workplace culture. Each person brings their own unique life experiences and perspective.

Culture could be defined by a groups’ cumulative deposit of language, beliefs, goals, attitudes, ways of acting and workplace norms.

The way you collaborate as a team, communicate and interact speaks volumes about your organization’s culture. This could include anything from “water cooler talk” to company-wide emails or employee interactions with the company’s founder. It could be expressed in a mission and values statement on the wall or something as simple as an employee expression of individuality in their clothing or office decor.

Central Concepts

Professors Ken Thompson (DePaul University) and Fred Luthans (University of Nebraska) take a look at the seven characteristics of culture:

  1. Culture = behavior. Culture describes the behaviors that represent the general operating norms in your environment. Culture is not usually defined as good or bad, although aspects of your culture likely support your progress and success and other aspects impede your progress.A norm of accountability will help make your organization successful. A norm of spectacular customer service will sell your products and engage your employees. Tolerating poor performance or exhibiting a lack of discipline to maintain established processes and systems will impede your success.       
  2. Culture is learned. People learn to perform certain behaviors through either the rewards or negative consequences that follow their behavior. When a behavior is rewarded, it is repeated and the association eventually becomes part of the culture. A simple thank you from an executive for work performed in a particular manner molds the culture.
  3. Culture is learned through interaction. Employees learn culture by interacting with other employees. Most behaviors and rewards in organizations involve other employees. An applicant experiences a sense of your culture and his or her fit within your culture during the interview process. An initial opinion of your culture can be formed as early as the first phone call from the human resources department. The culture that a new employee experiences and learns can be consciously shaped by managers, executives, and co-workers. Through your conversations with a new employee, you can communicate the elements of the culture you’d like to see continued. If this interaction doesn’t take place, the new employee forms his or her own idea of the culture, often in interaction with other new employees. This fails to serve the continuity a consciously created culture requires.
  4. Sub-cultures form through rewards. Employees have many different wants and needs. Sometimes employees value rewards that are not associated with the behaviors desired by managers for the overall company. This often is how subcultures are formed, as people get social rewards from coworkers or have their most important needs met in their departments or project teams.
  5. People shape the culture. Personalities and experiences of employees create the culture of an organization. For example, if most of the people in an organization are very outgoing, the culture is likely to be open and sociable. If many artifacts depicting a company’s history and values are evident throughout the company, people value their history and culture. If doors are open, and few closed-door meetings are held, the culture is unguarded. If negativity about supervision and the company is widespread and complained about by employees, a culture of negativity, that is difficult to overcome, will take hold.
  6. Culture is Negotiated. One person cannot create a culture alone. Employees must try to change the direction, the work environment, the way work is performed within the general norms of the workplace. Culture change is a process of giving and taking by all members of an organization. Formalizing strategic direction, systems development, and establishing measurements must be owned by the group responsible for them. Otherwise, employees will not own them.
  7. Culture is difficult to change. Culture change requires people to change their behaviors. It often is difficult for people to unlearn their old ways of doing things and to start performing the new behaviors consistently. Persistence, discipline, employee involvement, kindness and understanding, organization development work, and training can assist you to change a culture.


Other Characteristics of Culture:


Your work culture often is interpreted differently by diverse employees. Other events in people’s lives affect how they act and interact at work too. Although an organization has a common culture, each person may see that culture from a different perspective. Additionally, your employees’ individual work experiences, departments, and teams may view the culture differently.

You can mitigate the natural tendency of employees to optimize the components of the culture that serve their needs by teaching the culture you desire. Frequent reinforcement of the desired culture communicates the aspects of your work environment you most want to see repeated and rewarded. If you practice this reinforcement regularly, employees can more easily support the culture you wish to reinforce.

Strength or Weakness

Your culture may be strong or weak. When your work culture is strong, most people in the group agree on the culture. When your work culture is weak, people do not agree on the culture. Sometimes a weak organizational culture is the result of many subcultures or the shared values, assumptions, and behaviors of a subset of the organization.

For example, the culture of your company as a whole might be weak and very difficult to characterize because there are so many subcultures. Each department, work cell, or team may have its own culture. Within departments, the staff and managers may each have their own culture.

Positivity and Production

Ideally, organizational culture supports a positive and productive environment. Happy employees are not necessarily productive employees, and productive employees are not necessarily happy employees. It is important to find aspects of the culture that will support each of these qualities for your employees.