What is “Company Culture,” anyway?

A simple definition and some tips on building and changing work culture.

Here at Rhabit, understanding what goes in to a company culture; how it works, how it’s created, and how it is changed is kind of our thing.

When we talk to many of our customers and our investors though, oftentimes they’re asking us directly, “Our ‘culture’? What does that even mean? Can you measure it? How do you measure it? How do you change it?”.

The thoughtful response, as you might predict, is: “It’s complicated.” And, for better or for worse, that’s the truth. Human beings are complex. A bunch of different humans working together in a team? Significantly more complex. Orchestrating a company of thousands of people? You’ve got a complexity stew going, baby! This is why there’s a vast market for tools, resources, tactics, and everything else under the sun to try and understand and shape these complex systems.

For you, dear reader, that’s not terribly helpful, so let’s try and get to a minimum viable level of a definition of “culture” — as this will be useful with those follow-up questions regarding measurement and change.

With our background in organizational psychology, years of formal and informal research with clients, and intense review of the literature, here’s our research-driven formulation of what work culture is:

The Rhabit definition for work culture is: “The shared perceptions of behaviors that are supported, expected, and rewarded in an organization.”

That’s a fairly straightforward definition, right? This should be seen as a starting point for understanding workplace culture. Sticking our neck out and proposing a definition to something as complex as work culture, we’re bound to get some opinions, and that’s okay. It’s a complicated concept, so to distill it in to a single sentence is admittedly bold, but it sets a good foundation for digging deeper — so grab a shovel.

What do we mean by “shared perception”?

The shared part is where we’ll begin: Unless you’re a one-man shop, you likely work with other people, and while you do your own things, make your own decisions, have your own views, etc., there are likely some common points where people connect — and it’s in this commonality that a culture will take root. The perception part is just belief, really — it’s the least complex part of this definition; It’s the agreement piece. What is shared, in this case, is a fundamental agreement that doing a certain thing (a behavior; such as leaving at 5:00 PM on-the-dot every day, replying to emails late at night, etc.) is supported, expected, and rewarded. If there’s no agreement that a given behavior falls in to this category, then there’s not really a culture around that.

The notion of shared perception seems simple when you frame the concept in an example such as, “I’m the only person here who works on weekends”. In this case, you wouldn’t say that the company has a culture that ignores work-life balance, but you would say that you as the individual don’t place a high value on work-life balance. In this example, there is no shared perception, but rather, it highlights the difference in perception between an individual and the work culture they belong to.

Supported, Expected, Rewarded

For our Rhabit definition of culture, these are our “big three” — and it’s in understanding these big three “levers of culture” that you can start to comprehend not only what your work culture is, but how it’s formed, and later, how to change it.

When we state that a behavior is supported, this means that there’s no real negative consequence to doing it. Apropos to the title of our article perhaps, we’ll take swearing at work, for example. The occasional four-letter-word is good for the soul (from our perspective), but depending upon your company’s culture, this may not be the case at all. Dropping an f-bomb in front of a manager might get you a stern talking to or some immediate feedback, or conversely, it might have absolutely no consequence — that’s how the culture establishes support. Support for a behavior that takes root in your company’s culture can be completely passive in nature.

In terms of behaviors that are expected, this is similar to support in that violations are typically met with reactions and/or negative consequences. The key difference in expectations is that expected behaviors set or influence the behaviors of others within the culture, to the point where the default mode of operating is assuming that the behavior will occur.

If the expectation is that you will respond to emails at any given hour, then others will send you email at any given hour, as they expect you to respond. Comparing this to our swearing example above: if the culture was one where profanity was supported, it’s hard to imagine that you would be expected to swear like a sailor, you suffer no consequence in either doing it or not doing it, so it’s not an expectation.

Reward is the simplest and least entangled of the big three cultural levers. Behaviors that are rewarded mean they are met with praise or prize, whether it be open acknowledgement in public, a high-five, a mention in a company event or mass email, or financial incentives. If a behavior is connected to an outcome that effects the individual in a positive way, then that behavior is rewarded.

How do I change my work culture?

The blunt answer is: you (singular) probably don’t at present. Unless you’re a leader.

If you’re a leader in the organization, the change starts with you. If you properly leverage your subordinates and inject a consistent behavioral change and reflect that it’s supported, expected, or rewarded, this can influence the downstream behavior of others and begin the process of making it a new cultural norm. Combine this social structure leverage with process and policy changes, and you can effectively change your organizational culture.

When big companies want to change culture, they usually fire CEOsmake huge policy changes, or do really big things that change how a behavior or set of behaviors is supported, expected, or rewarded.

Let’s say you’re not a leader — does this mean you’re stuck with the cultural status quo? Can an individual really impact change?

It may not feel like it, and that’s because cultural change is really difficult to begin, let alone achieve on any scale. To change culture, you have to change what is supported, expected, and rewarded; to do this in any area outside the boundaries of a small core team means that you have to have the authority and ability to influence each person in the system, either directly or indirectly (through a hierarchy). This means it must be nearly impossible to change organizational culture as an individual at the bottom of the totem pole, right?

The answer is (again, perhaps predictably): it’s complicated. You could start by really examining your work environment to understand the current state of the culture and what behaviors are culturally strong (supported, expected, and/or rewarded) and then have conversations about policies, procedures, tools, and engage your leadership. Talk openly about these subjects and be purposeful. You can begin to initiate cultural change by asking questions and discussing these topics with leaders in your organization.

With this framework you should have everything you need to have an open and honest conversation with your team, your leaders, and perhaps even yourself about where your work culture is today and where you want to take it.

Along the way, let us know if we can be of assistance — We love helping you tackle challenges!

With data-driven love,
The Rhabit Team