Is “Culture” Becoming the Next Meaningless Buzzword?

In 2014, the word “culture” was the most popular word according to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary. In 2015, company culture was among the top content drivers for Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur. This year, it’s morphed into phrases like “cultural ecosystem” and “cultural fit.”

According to the Business Dictionary, the simple definition of company culture is “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” A few of the most common words used to describe company culture are forward-thinking, dynamic, innovative, agile, challenging, and transparent. And yet, more than 70% of the U.S. workforce are disengaged. With all of the emphasis on company culture this year, it may make the list of this year’s top business buzzwords to imply a set of values that are not actually implemented or demonstrated.

Culture is more than all-you-can-eat cereal bars, ping pong tables and Frisbee Fridays. It isn’t what is written down in the employee handbook or posted on the wall in the break room.

Culture is not what people say about your company; it’s not even how people feel about your company. It’s how they feel about their work and the people with whom they do it.

“Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about new ideas and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day and culture is the guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is most of the time.” – Anne Morris, HBR

If you really want to make your culture more than just a buzzword, consider thinking about it in the context of five surprisingly simple and common sense constructs:

Purpose: An organization cannot prescribe a purpose for employees; employees have to feel it. People have to feel that what they do matters, and that their individual and collective contributions move the company forward.

Engagement: Engagement is how equipped, motivated and empowered employees are to fulfill their purpose. If employees feel that what they do matters and that it contributes to the success of the organization, they will work toward the common goal as a valued member of the tribe.

The disengaged will stay for what they can get from the company. The engaged will stay for what they can contribute.

Trust: People will not invest themselves in a company they do not trust. Trust means doing what’s right, regardless of personal risk. Communication is the foundation of trust. Without open and honest communication set by example from the top, employees will fill in the blanks themselves – often incorrectly or incompletely – and trust falls apart as rumors and misinformation take over.

Reciprocal teaching and learning: Not only giving every member of the team opportunities to both teach and learn but also establishing the expectation is critical to a healthy company culture. Nurturing a learning environment requires a shift from the traditional top-down model of mentorship to one that inspires all employees to grow the collective intellectual capacity of the organization.

Model the emotions you want to cultivate: Every organization has an emotional culture. People “catch” feelings from others through behavioral mimicry and changes in brain function. It’s called emotional contagion and it’s backed by a wealth of neuroscientific research. If you collaborate with others with a positive, optimistic attitude, you will actually change the chemistry of their brains in a positive way. Likewise, if you exude stress, frustration, or pessimism, those around you will catch those negative emotions. Depending upon the level of intensity, both positive and negative emotions can be sticky enough to be passed along to the next interaction. Each of us has the power to cultivate specific emotions that impact the culture of the organization.

“Challenge yourself every day to be the culture you want to see.” -Duy Duong

Happiness, Engagement, and Collaborative Contributions = The Sweet Spot

You’ll find your culture at the intersection of engagement, happiness, and the kinds of collaborative contributions that employees experience when they come to work each day. If people feel like they are part of a tribe and happy to be at work they will be more engaged. If they are more engaged, they will be contributing their talents and skills to that tribe. If they feel like what they do matters to the success of the organization, they will be happier.

One word of caution, though: a healthy culture is not synonymous with a kinder, gentler, happier workplace. Happy people do not automatically create an engaged culture. The irony of a “smile and nod” culture is that it can create an environment where there is no impetus to change or there is too much pressure against rocking the boat to welcome new ideas. Overachievers are looked down upon because they make mediocrity feel uncomfortable. Disagreements are uncomfortable. Challenge is uncomfortable. The status quo often wins. The 7 most expensive words in business, ‘We have always done it this way,’ not only prohibit the next big idea, they discourage people from even thinking about the next big idea.

Care and empathy can coexist in a culture that fosters candor and honesty. Likewise, candor and honesty can be delivered with respect. Culture is not a tag line written in a manifesto. Culture is the set of values that is defined by how people they feel about their work and the people with whom they do it. Companies can be profitable and care about the people who help generate those profits. When they do both, they actually increase the capacity to contribute to both personal satisfaction and organizational goals.

You might also enjoy reading Inspiring Leaders to Build a Culture of Mentorship.

If you enjoyed this post, the best way to tell me is with a like, comment or share. And, please check out my new book, Happy Hour with Einstein… I’d be most grateful!


Dr. Melissa Hughes is the President and Founder of The Andrick Group and the author of Happy Hour with Einstein. She specializes in growing our capacity to learn as well as employee engagement, effective communication strategies, and the unique dynamics of the multi-generational workforce. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, Melissa incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to improve the way we think, learn, communicate and collaborate.


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