In middle school, I always loved presentations that started, “Webster’s Dictionary defines X as blah, blah, blah.” It felt like we heard five of those a day.
I’m well out of middle school, but based on Merriam-Webster’s selection for the 2014 Word of the Year, I feel like it’s my turn to play the dictionary reference starter card.
Merriam-Webster selected “culture” as the word of the year due to the amount of web searches for terms like “organizational culture,” “culture of transparency,” “customer culture,” and even “celebrity culture.”
One significant way in which companies differentiate themselves and the way they do things is by developing a unique culture that helps them drive performance. The challenge is that organizational culture is extremely difficult for leaders to pinpoint, define, quantify, and understand at a level that they can actually manage. It may seem like a nebulous or fluffy concept to those who are used to managing via quantifiable data — and it’s even more challenging to identify aspects of an organization’s culture that, if proactively managed, will have a tangible, positive impact on performance.
But just because I don’t understand astrophysics doesn’t mean it’s not real or that it doesn’t impact my day-to-day life. The difference between astrophysics and culture is that you have the ability to influence your organization’s culture.
How Will You Define Your Company Culture?
While Merriam-Webster’s definition is great, I prefer a more organizational catchall explanation that people can understand quickly in their own work context: the way things get done around here.
This definition helps convey the idea that culture is something that touches nearly everything that happens — or doesn’t happen — in an organization. For a better understanding of “the way things get done” in your company, ask your employees to answer these four questions, then answer them yourself.
1. To what extent can every person in the organization clearly articulate why the company exists, where the company is going, and how it’s going to get there?
The most successful organizations have employees who are committed to the company mission and have a shared vision of the future. Facebook is a great example of this: All employees are brought in on the premise that the organization aims to make the world more open and connected, which only serves to galvanize the staff.
2. What information and skills do employees need to successfully do their jobs, and what structure will best help you achieve your organizational objectives?
Top-performing organizations have employees who feel ownership over their work,provide input on organizational decisions, and are empowered to advance in the company. Google is consistently mentioned as one of the best places to work for this reason.
The overwhelming majority of Google employees feel that they have a lot of responsibility within the organization and the autonomy to carry out those responsibilities. Google also has some of the most impressive employee training and educational perks around. In fact, 94 percent of Google employees feel that they receive the necessary training and support to advance in their careers.
3. To what extent does the organizational structure allow for decisions to be made efficiently and effectively, for silos to be naturally diminished, and for people to operate in accordance with the stated values and norms of the organization?
The best organizations are clear about what they stand for, what they say “yes” and “no” to, and how well they’re able to reach consensus among themselves.
Zappos is a great example of this. All employees — and most of the world, for that matter — know the company’s core values. These values have effectively guided employees’ behavior since the company’s inception, even though they weren’t codified until many years later.
4. To what extent does the company focus on the needs of external and internal stakeholders alike, and is the organization capable of adapting quickly to respond to shifting needs and demands?
High-performing organizations are able to effectively react to the marketplace and understand what consumers want most. Apple is famous for its uncanny ability toanticipate consumers’ needs, then build products that exceed their wildest expectations. To survive, your organization must be able to anticipate, understand, and respond to changing market conditions.
The degree to which your employees are aligned in their responses to the questions above will help you gauge the state of your organizational culture. Their answers will also provide a good road map for how you can improve.
What meaningful steps will you take to define your own company culture? What will your company do to ensure that your culture makes an impact for years to come?
This article originally appeared on Forbes
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