As a consultant in the space of organizational culture, I often get asked to define culture. Frankly, one of the challenges we face when we address culture is that we overthink and overcomplicate it.
Microelements such as values, beliefs, norms, perceptions, desires, expectations, assumptions, and attitudes all boil under the surface, and we try to associate them with culture. That’s a lot to juggle, and it muddies the waters, leaving us confused about what culture is and the work we can do to better it. I’m not suggesting these elements don’t influence culture, but I am suggesting that we can simplify them by bringing everything to the surface level for us to easily see.
Simply put, culture is how you show up. How you show up is comprised of your actions, behaviors, and decisions. As a result: CULTURE = ACTIONS + BEHAVIORS + DECISIONS OF ANY GROUP
These groups can be your direct team, your department, your organization, even a group you associate with outside of work—each has its own local culture. What makes culture more empowering is that all core elements (actions, behaviors, and decisions) are fully in your control. That’s the internal context. Now let’s add some external context.
Think of any competitive advantage that exists in your team or organization. Then, ask yourself:
• Can it be outsourced? If so, it’s not your competitive edge.
• Can it be disrupted from an external source at any time? As an example, can a competitor copy or mimic your advantage? If so, it’s not your ultimate edge.
• Is it reliant on an uncontrollable customer preference that may shift away from your advantage over time? If so, it’s not your sustainable edge.
Using these external lenses, competitive advantages such as product, technology, features and benefits, labor systems, or process are difficult to distinguish and endure as the edge you need over time. They’re too easy to disrupt or lose control of.
What’s not easy to disrupt are the unique elements of your internal assets: the people in your locker room. Their distinctive mix of strengths, talents, and passions cannot be replicated. Your people and how they show up define your culture.
• You can’t outsource culture.
• Culture cannot be disrupted unless you do it to yourself.
• Culture doesn’t rely on external stakeholders.
Culture is an inside game and is birthed from the depths of the organization. The strongest indicators are typically behind closed doors but to bring culture to life, it must be front to the forefront.
We all have a workplace. Some settings may be grander than others, but ultimately, no matter how beautiful a physical space might be, it never has heart or soul until it’s animated by its employees. People are at the heart of our culture’s brand and identity. Our people become the culture champions and evangelists needed to inspire our internal locker room so that we can eventually win over the marketplace.
So, where do we start? Is culture a top-down initiative? Or is it a groundswell from the front lines? The reality is it’s a combination, but it does lean toward one of the two dynamics. While the top-down message and vision are important, culture is by no means a “push” program. There is no wand to inspire employees to love the company and one another. People need to make those decisions willingly and on their own terms.
So, if it’s less about the top-down approach, how do we inspire the front lines to animate a gold jacket culture and bring it to life? The answer lies in the Latin definition of inspire: to breathe life into.
Breathe life into your employees, and they will breathe life into your culture.
Excerpt from The Power of Playing Offense by Paul Epstein