by B.J. Rogers

Mission, vision, values, culture. . . pick up a recent business book and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter one or all of these nebulous terms. The problem? Not only is there a lack of agreement about what words like these mean, but the terms themselves are highly conceptual; it’s not always easy to point to something observable and say “That’s mission!” or “That’s culture!” To understand concepts in general, we’ve gotta translate them into behaviors; things we can see and actions we can name.

When it comes to culture in particular, things get all the more convoluted. Consider this description (which we think is pretty good) from gothamCulture, a consulting firm focused on culture as a driver of performance:  

Culture is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid (The Business Dictionary).

Culture also includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits (Needle, 2004).

Customs? Rules? Norms? Symbols? Gah! Someone get me a glossary!

We propose starting a little more simply:

Organizational culture is the way a group of people interact with each other in the course of working together – and it’s informed by the things that those people care about and prioritize.

If you want a sense of what a given organization’s culture is, ask people a couple of questions like:

  • “What’s it like to work here?”
  • “Tell me what happens around lunchtime.”

Chances are you’ll get just enough intel to surmise what people value. If there’s consensus that people laugh a lot and enjoy a weekly pub-night, you might reasonably conclude that people care about having fun and nurturing personal relationships.

If you learn people eat lunch at their desks, it might be that they’re keen on independent work – or that they care about excellence and getting things done (and perhaps prioritize that over socializing or relationship building).

In some ways, culture is what it feels like to work somewhere, but that feeling is always informed by behaviors – the way people act around and with one another. And those behaviors are informed by values and beliefs – the things people hold dear, care about, and make time for. The tricky thing is, culture is neither completely organic nor easily prescribed. It’s susceptible to change based on an org’s life-cycle, staff composition, the nature of the work, and a host of internal and external influences. Still, a lack of intention around culture can lead to all sorts of complications when it comes to expectations and shared understandings (and misunderstandings)!

The bottom line is: no matter how you define it, culture matters; and how people feel about where they work is pretty likely to have an impact on engagement, satisfaction, turnover, and success. A toxic culture can tank impact and make for a miserable workplace. A healthy culture has the power to facilitate growth, attract great talent, and unlock potential.

Wanna know how people feel about working at your organization? Start somewhere proven – try Gallup’s “Q12” employee engagement questionnaire. Understand where your staff is at when it comes to engagement and the odds are you’ll get some insight into how people feel about their work. From there you just might get a glimpse into whether the culture of your org is strong and healthy or in need of a checkup and a boost!

If you liked this article, check out our two-day seminar Cultivating Kick-A** Culture (formerly Great Culture, Great Results: Building Healthy Organizations from the Inside Out). 


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