Company culture is talked about a lot – but what actually is it?  It is very easy to think that if your company hasn’t spent time defining vision and values then you don’t have a culture.  But a commonly accepted definition of company culture is simply “the way we do things around here”.  Every company has spoken and unspoken rules about how things are done and what behaviours are acceptable, and these collected together form a company culture – good and bad.

A good definition of company culture comes from US leadership experts, Higgins, Mcallaster, Certo and Gilbert*.  They said a company culture is “a pattern of shared values, norms, and practices that help distinguish one organization from another”.

So a culture is made up of all those little behaviour patterns: what actions are challenged or sanctioned, what type of person is promoted or passed over, whether faulty product is shipped or held back, and whether bullies are disciplined.  It is all to do with behaviours.  Grand speeches have little or no impact unless they are followed up with concordant actions.

We all have a natural social tendency to follow the behaviour patterns of those around us in an organisation.  We naturally expect senior staff to set examples of what behaviour is acceptable and how we should go about getting what we want done.  Many of you will have experience of being a first-level line manager in an organisation, and you will have become aware very quickly that within your team you can have a big influence on how things are done, but beyond the confines of that group, if you hit a block in another department or from a senior manager, there is very little you can do to influence the company.  So we have to look to the leaders in an organisation to set the culture.  They are the only ones who have influence that is far-reaching enough to really change the organisation’s culture.

So if you are a leader – perhaps newly promoted – how can you change the culture and set your own stamp on it?  Well the answer is that you will influence the culture regardless of whether you try or not.  Just by being there and making everyday decisions you define what is encouraged, acceptable or important.  The trick is to have enough self-awareness to understand what you are doing and to make sure it is leading the company in a healthy direction.  So watch your reactions to those around you, watch how you deal with good and bad news, watch the reasons you cite in making decisions, and why you favour one person’s opinion over another.  Make sure you are acting for the best reasons, make sure you are encouraging those with good talents, make sure your reasons are grounded in good business sense.  And above all make sure you treat people they way you would like to be treated yourself: that is the best guide you have to working out how they would want to be treated. You don’t have to be soft, but the company culture will be greatly improved if you are seen to be fair.

To become more aware of your cultural impact why not book up for the Impellus Organisational Leadership Skills course.


*Higgins, James M., Craig Mcallaster, Samuel C. Certo, and James P. Gilbert. “Using Cultural Artifacts to Change and Perpetuate Strategy.” Journal of Change Management, Vol. 6, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 397-415.