Defining, creating, and strengthening a company culture can enhance alignment, connection, and even employee retention. To achieve those bold ambitions, organizations often create complex models, programs, and communication campaigns to share a newly defined culture with employees. This work is often referred to as a “journey” and can last years — but by the time the campaign has been rolled out, the culture has probably changed not just once but many times. The problem with this traditional approach to culture work, although well intentioned, is that the net cast is usually broad, the content is over-generalized, and execution on a team level is optional.
As important and intuitive as culture is, very few organizations get it right to the degree that it can be counted on by every employee because the overarching experience of working on a team varies greatly from one group to another — in other words, it’s conditional. The little “c” culture that employees experience in a team is different from, but no less important than, the big “C” culture of the organization as a whole. Big “C” culture is a commitment that the organization makes to each and every employee about what they can expect it to feel like to work at the organization, no matter what team they’re on, no matter where they work, and no matter where they land in the org chart. Big “C” culture exemplifies an organization’s employer brand as a promise, a unifying experience, and an expectation — an unconditional culture.
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Recent academic research has found no positive correlation between the cultural values a company emphasizes externally and employees’ belief that the company actually embodies those values. Through my experience working with HR leaders and understanding the feelings of their workforces — and as an employee of a company myself — I’ve found that in order for a culture to be unconditional, it must be specific to the organization, clear, credible, and consistent while still leaving space for teams to have their own ways of working.
To be real, sustainable, and meaningful, culture must be:
- Differentiating. It’s tempting to define your culture by looking to the outside. Complicated frameworks and processes are interesting to read about, but they often result in overengineered, over-visualized, generic bullet points that could apply to any company. Other organizations’ cultures aren’t yours; they’re theirs. U.S.