Q: I am in a leadership role at a small but growing events firm. I keep hearing about organizational culture and am wondering about our own culture at work. How can I get a grip on our culture and how it affects our progress?

A: Organizational culture is powerful; it develops over time and can be difficult to change. An organization’s culture is defined as the shared assumptions, values and beliefs that guide the actions of its members. Many of the assumptions are unspoken.

Culture can be a particularly important consideration for small businesses. A healthy work culture is essential to maintaining high levels of employee satisfaction and customer loyalty. A dysfunctional culture negatively impacts the performance of the company as often employees are disengaged, not putting forth their best effort or may even be working against the organizational goals.

Leaders are often well aware of the more obvious warning signs that tell them that their organization is experiencing trouble. These signs may include:

  • Losing key customers
  • Declining customer satisfaction and quality
  • Frequent employee turnover
  • Shaky financials
  • Plummeting employee satisfaction survey scores

But what about the more subtle (or not so subtle) warning signs that may indicate that something is amiss within the organization? Consider:

  • Are you having a hard time hiring talented people? (Good candidates do their research and learn about the work and its environment.)
  • Are most office doors usually closed throughout the business day? (Little employee interaction results in a lack of collaboration and innovation.)
  • Does there seem to be an “us vs. them” mentality between employees and management or between various work groups or organizational units?
  • Is attendance low at company social functions?
  • Or (here’s my personal favorite) when the boss walks into a meeting in progress, a definite shift occurs – employees and managers fall silent or become more timid and acquiescent.

These are all signs of a work culture that may be in trouble.

Organizational culture tends to be shaped by the leader’s values and behavior, as well as the industry and the business environment. Since the 1980s, more business leaders have been paying attention to, and evaluating, their workplace culture because they understand the relationship between a committed, engaged employee and how that employee treats his or her co-workers and responds to customers.

For a quick and easy temperature read on your workplace culture, conduct this simple exercise. Ask 3-4 employees to answer a few questions*. Select staff that you can trust will give you honest and straight feedback.

Instruct employees to only use one- or few-word descriptors like: inspired, hierarchical, supportive, bureaucratic or high-conflict. When they return the information, review it and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did anything come as a big surprise? Or as a big disappointment?
  2. Is there a large gap between how the culture is presently viewed and where they think it should be in the future?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, maybe it is time to step back and reassess what you believe the organization’s culture should be in order to be successful in the future. Essential ingredients to driving any kind of change in your work culture must include:

  • Leadership’s commitment to drive the effort and “walk the talk.” Leaders need to be clear as to what their vision and values are regarding the organization and act as positive role models reflecting those values. Action speaks louder than words.
  • Involve the workforce: Solicit their ideas and engage them in problem solving, which will enhance their buy-in. Talk openly and listen carefully. You can’t do it alone.
  • Build a shared understanding throughout the company on what needs to change to improve the work culture and why. Articulate how these changes will impact future business and the lives of the employees.

Most importantly, be realistic and patient. Creating lasting culture change can be a frustrating yet rewarding process and happens slowly over time. In the end, it is mostly about building positive and productive relationships.

* Questions from Thomas Brown, Ph.D., “Culture Mapping.”



Just wanted to say that mark’s answer to the culture questions was as comprehensive and helpful as I could imagine in so concise a response. Good to read.

— artlerner, July 12, 2006

Does culture mean that we all have to be liked? We have managers/execs who excel at their jobs and motivate their employees, but are not well liked by others outside of their work unit.

— alaneu, August 03, 2006