What is Culture?


Graham Birkenhead

Develop a Winning Strategy

What is Culture?

Culture is a word that is used liberally in all manner of conversations. Most people have a sense of what it means; however, most would struggle to provide a solid definition. Culture can be considered at many different levels: national, community, organisation or company, team or specialisation, or even a family. The diversity of culture is one of the things that makes the world such a fascinating place.  

We can all sense culture – good or bad – especially when we walk into somewhere new or different -  like a new shop or visit a different country.  And while we are sensitive to different cultures, we may not see the culture that we live in; an objective external observer, such as a consultant, can be invaluable here.  Observing culture involves observing the behaviours of the people - some of those behaviours are overt and obvious, many are subtle.   All will have consequences - good, or less good.

"Culture isn't just one aspect of the game; it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value."

Lou Gerstner - Ex CEO, IBM

How does Culture form?

Culture is what emerges as people work and live with other people. It is the result of us individually finding ways to survive together, work to common goals together, while contending with whatever environment, opportunities and constraints are around us. A culture will always emerge; it can continuously evolve as group members influence it, or it can become static as members of a group resist change.  

Culture can, and often does, develop in a bottom up approach. In this case it is 'organic'; it creates itself as the members of the company learn to work with each other. From a company leader's perspective, that bottom-up culture is created by the behaviours that are tolerated.  

Culture can be directed and nurtured by taking a top-down approach - this is simply a matter of the executive knowing what behaviours they would like to see (both internally and externally) and leading by good example - 'walk the talk'.  The role of senior leadership in guiding (or allowing) culture cannot be overstated.

Leadership & Management

A Bowl of Cultural Soup

There really is nothing quite like a good bowl of soup; warming, nutritious and tasty. The thing about soup is that there is almost an infinite variety of possibilities of what you can make – whether it is using a different combination of ingredients or a slight variation of the same ingredients. Adjustments to the cooking time or temperature, or...

Read more

How can working Cultures be so different from each other?

Everyone knows that cultures can vary hugely from one company to another; we may describe it as the 'atmosphere'. We can see and feel it as soon as we walk in the door. Things that may be immediately apparent would include the level of noise (are people talking), the calmness or franticness, tidy or messy, energy or still.  You may notice how formal or relaxed people are with each other; are they smiling and laughing, or are they serious and looking tired?  

There are many elements at play that will contribute to the formation of that culture:

  • The type of work itself - many jobs develop their own sets of jargon, vocabulary and humour, some may require procedural rigour, or wild creativity, thick skin or great compassion.

  • There may be a huge emphasis on time related achievement of targets or quotas.

  • The mix of people and whether they have the appropriate knowledge and skills.

  • The organisational and management structure in which people operate.  

  • The optimisation of processes; do they make best use of resources and people?  

  • The working environment, tools, systems and facilities.  

All of these things attract certain types of people who will respond to these factors both individually and collectively. And the way they respond will depend on their individual personality, prior experience, and of course the leadership style within the company.

Why do I need a healthy Culture?

In any organisation, the impacts of a strong or healthy culture are profound resulting in higher productivity, greater creativity, higher levels of job satisfaction, and less churn. These healthy organisations are also more resilient in times of extreme external challenge (eg the pandemic). Conversely, many change initiatives which should have brought significant benefits to an organisation have failed purely because no, or insufficient, attention was paid to the culture.

"In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”

Howard Schultz - CEO Starbucks

How does my Culture relate to my Strategy?

'Culture eats strategy for breakfast' is a famous quote attributed to the management guru Peter Drucker; he also introduced the concept of the 'knowledge worker'.  No matter how good and well thought out your strategic goals, or how well crafted your supporting objectives, if you do not have an engaged and motivated workforce, you will struggle to achieve your goals. While defining strategic goals is crucial, part of the goals should be envisioning the organisational culture that will enable you to achieve them, and then go on to achieving further and greater goals.

"Strategy provides the clear and focused direction for decision making and collective action.  

Culture provides the collective energy and motive force for the company to achieve its strategic goals".

Values and culture in many ways should be the same thing. However, what do you mean by values - a list of words written on your reception wall or website for all visitors to see?  The real values of a company can be observed - they comprise a mix of beliefs and behaviours; beliefs are like pillars or anchors around which all other behaviour forms.  Those behaviours become engrained in the company's ways of working and so become the culture.

When considering a company's culture, both as it is and as you would like it to be, it is often easier to think in terms of the demonstrated lived values - ie observable behaviours.  

However, being able to articulate your real values is an important part of your strategic decision making capability. Ultimately, your values will define what you are and are not prepared to do as you pursue your strategic goals; where is your grey zone, and where is the red line?

What's the link between Culture and Values?

Leadership & Management

How to Evaluate your Values

I am a great believer in the value of a company being in touch with its values.  And I am greatly saddened when I see those values distilled into a mere list of words that are written on walls and published in websites.  And you know some of the words I'm talking about:  Communication, Respect, Integrity and Excellence are a few of the common ones...

Read more

Can my Culture give me a competitive edge, and if so, HOW?

One of the key roles of a CEO and their executive team is to create a working environment in which the members of the company can thrive.  Most people want to do a good job - or the best job they can.  That involves working for the benefit of themselves, the company, its customers, and probably the community or broader society.  Depending on the role, people need sufficient control or framework so they know what they are required to do and then the creative freedom to apply their skill and judgement.   If people don't need to be concerned with their emotional, psychological or physical safety and wellness, they will be much more focused on their outputs and outcomes.

"Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur.”

David Cummings - Co-Founder, Pardot

People also need the freedom to develop and hone their knowledge and skills; learning is the means by which they do that.   There is an oft quoted adage that 'people are your most important asset'; the reality is a little more subtle.  Knowledge is your most important asset - and that knowledge resides in your people.  A workforce that is individually motivated and collectively inspired will make far greater use of their knowledge for the benefit of all.   In a rapidly changing world, knowledge has to be constantly updated, honed and built into the way the company operates.   Truly, the company that learns faster than the competition will have the edge.

Leadership & Management

I don't have a Toxic Culture – Do I?

A recent UK employee study paints a rather troubling picture of company life. It found that: The study went on to identify that roughly half the people would leave a negative on-line review about their company, and that nearly 50% wouldn't even apply to a company that had negative online reviews.   At a time when so many companies are struggling to...

Read more

Leadership & Management

Stay in touch with your Inner Elephant

Those elephants just sneak into the room with you, hide in plain sight whilst tucked away in corners, and cause havoc with your company’s performance.  If only we could do something about that. Humans have an amazing ability to see and notice things that are different or changing, but we are generally less good at seeing things that don't change....

Read more

If you listen, your company's culture will be speaking to you; it may even be shouting out to you.  As you listen, behaviour is what you will be tuning into and specifically 'problematic behaviour'. The term 'problematic behaviour' can indeed be broad and it may include things like high management overhead while dealing with staff issues, churn and difficulty recruiting, productivity, quality and warrantee issues, or comments like "I just work here".  If you are seeing and hearing things that make you uncomfortable, then there may be an issue that needs attention.  


How do I know if my Culture needs some attention?

And what about Toxic Workplace Cultures?

Phrases such as 'Toxic Work Culture' and 'Hostile Work Environment' are quite common these days. As societies, we are becoming more aware of these issues and with the help of internet and social media, we are airing our grievances and concerns for all to read.  

However, it is very easy to think that there are merely 2 extremes - you either have a good and healthy work culture, or a toxic work environment.  Of course, the reality is not quite like that.  Most organisations, even the best, will have bubbles of issues - the question is whether they address them or not.  

Most work environments that have some level of toxicity or hostility have arrived there by management or leadership neglect - these behaviours have been allowed to develop maybe by turning a blind eye, or not responding to a situation in a timely and appropriate manner.  

In truly toxic environments, various elements of management or leadership may actually have been complicit in creating that culture - through management practices that many would consider abhorrent, or leadership styles that may include such techniques as intimidation, humiliation, or bullying.  

Inadvertent toxicity can be dealt with by means of a suitable sustained programme of interventions; complicit toxicity may need more drastic measures to resolve.

How do I measure my Culture?

By its very nature, culture is difficult to measure directly; however, there are many proxies that can be used, as well as a variety of instruments that will indicate areas of interest. Culture is generated by individual people within the organisation and so can be observed by the behaviours of those people and the culture can be adjusted or shifted, and indeed should be when it is appropriate to do so.

However, a company that tries to directly change those behaviours does so at its peril; those behaviours are the visible tip of an iceberg full of other factors that need to be addressed. Cultural assessment is the process of revealing those underlying factors so that they in turn can be addressed and modified. We often define parts of our culture by building out specific ‘values’ through initiatives such as safety, respectful workplace, continuous improvement; these initiatives can often provide great reference data for understanding the overall culture.

Healthy Workplace Culture Program

To start your cultural exploration

Or to dive deeper quicker, consider our

How do I adjust my Culture - what's involved?

Don't be tempted to think of 'culture change'; you can't change people, and so you can't change culture.  So, for those organisations that do want to make an adjustment, this is not a quick process. While a cultural assessment can identify some issues and solutions that can be implemented quickly with significant benefit, the overall approach must be to see this as a long-game, where a sustainable cultural adjustment or shift will be achieved through an ongoing series of small changes to your polices, processes, practices or environment. Without persistent and consistent leadership, culture will tend to revert to the previous steady-state or take its own direction.

"People don't resist change, they resist being changed."

Peter Senge


Lean & Agile

Welcome To The Edge of Chaos

We humans are paradoxical creatures.  On the one hand, we like habits - good or bad - where we follow routines, and especially if we did something that worked really well, then we are quite happy to do the same again, and again, and keep doing it.   Eating the same things, at the same times, going to the same place for vacation year after year, a...

Read more

There is no generally optimal organisational structure other than what is optimal for the achievement of the company's goals, while making best use of the available resources, and consideration of other constraints.  

With regard to people, different types of people or personalities will be required depending on the way the company needs to operate, and they will need to be managed and led accordingly.

However, regardless of the nature of the company, its product or market, and the people who make and serve there, the employees will still need the environment in which they can thrive and do and give their best.  This requires building a healthy workplace culture - appropriate to the particular company, and which may be very different from the next healthy company.  

Is there an optimal organisational structure?

I know I have an unhealthy workplace culture - what do I do?

  1. That's a great first step - acknowledging that you have an issue.  
  2. Now comes a more difficult bit - recognising why.  Go stand in front of the mirror.  Take a look at you and your senior management team; your existing culture is what you have allowed to evolve or maybe even what you have demonstrated.   Despite many good intentions, values and mission statements, if you haven't set a consistent and good example, and you maybe haven't fully attended to the psychological needs of your staff, they will be developing the culture that best suits them and their immediate needs - not maliciously or even consciously, but inevitably.   People being human!
  3. And finally, the really difficult bit, providing the strong leadership that will turn the ship. First, you need to identify the behaviours that are causing the most concern - in your staff, your managers, and you.   Go and talk with your people, find out what is on their minds - don't assume you know.  Often, when we talk to the executive team, the line workers, or middle management in the same company it is almost as if we are talking about completely different companies.   Intentions and aspirations of the executive are not experienced by the workforce, and aspirations and frustrations of the workforce are not recognised by the executive. Changing behaviour is difficult and takes time - it requires (self) discipline and determination - and the ability and willingness for team members to hold each other to account. Work as a team, encourage, celebrate, and reward the positive change.


"I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better".

George C. Lichtenberg

There is a great quote from Zig Zigler - he said: "you don't build companies, you build people and the people build the company".  Your people are the source of your success; they are the guardians of the knowledge crucial to your success and growth.  They gather the intelligence from the market place, they identify and solve problems, they innovate, create the products and services of tomorrow, and they serve your customers.  They are as much a part of your brand as your product or your logo.

While taking time and effort to recruit the right people who are aligned in values and a good cultural fit will make life easier for everyone, it's what you do with them during their first year that is critical to their longer-term performance.   During this first year, they are inquisitive and they learn how the company works. However, they become acculturated, which may include the 'accepted level of productivity', or they don't which may result in problematic behaviour and ultimately parting ways.

People join and quit cultures - not companies.   The culture of a company is part of its brand and increasingly so; the top candidates ask culture related questions during interviews, and exceptional companies attract and retain exceptional people.  

Be exceptional.

What about people, and hiring, firing, staying, and quitting?

Leadership & Management

Why would anyone ever work for YOU?

Unemployment figures continue to improve; we have a little way to go before we are back to pre-pandemic levels, but we are moving in the right direction.   Currently, unemployment in Canada is 7.5% (1.5m) and in the US it is 5.4% (10m).  These figures will include people who are ‘looking’ for work; they won’t include the people who could work but f...

Read more

Is there a good or bad, right or wrong Culture?

"My beliefs will run through everything I do. My beliefs, my values are my anchor and when people try to drag me, as I know they will, it is to that sense of right and wrong, that sense of who I am and what I believe, to which I will always hold".

Ed Miliband (British Politician)

While this question could turn into a deep philosophical debate, there is a more straightforward business consideration with 2 elements:

  1. Firstly, is the culture enabling or even empowering the company to drive towards its goals?

  2. Secondly, is the company, and its people, operating with demonstrated values or behaviours with which they are comfortable?

These 2 elements could be in conflict with each other, hopefully they aren't.  

However, it is easy to make judgements about a culture based on our own personal beliefs and biases; we need to be very aware of that when considering the question of good, bad, right or wrong.  

Isn't Culture something that HR deals with?  

Just like quality or marketing, culture is everybody's responsibility; certainly everybody contributes to it.  To be sure, the good people in HR have a very important part to play - but don't make culture their responsibility.  Every contact employees have with HR during their employment should be consistent with the desired culture of the organisation; HR polices and practices should be aligned with that.  HR may also advise on the organisational mechanics of achieving some of the cultural elements of the company's strategic goals.  But the overall responsibility for articulating and leading the culture belongs to the executive and then the broader management.

A good cultural fit starts during recruiting, and while HR may coordinate the recruitment and onboarding process, everyone involved in the selection and onboarding processes has some level of responsibility.  

Too often, HR are the people that will deal with problematic staff when they start reacting adversely to the culture - either through sick-days, stress leave, performance issues, warnings, or termination.  They are usually the people that have to deal with the consequences of a poor culture - and expend a huge amount of time and effort doing so.

"Most companies overlook the most basic of all training functions: the onboarding of new employees into their corporate culture.”


Jay Samit - Author / ex-VP Deloitte

What's the link between culture and diversity & inclusion?  

There are 2 distinct elements to this question:

  1. Firstly, diversity in its many diverse forms from neuro, to ethnic, to socio-economic, to demographic, to linguistic etc etc has the potential to bring in people who have very different perspectives, different ways of communicating, and different ways of interacting.  These differences can bring in a richness to all elements of the company - such as ways of perceiving things, problem understanding and solving, approaching situations.  To accommodate this variation in people, a much needed element of the culture is to create an inclusive environment - this involves everyone recognizing and the value of differences and a willingness to take the time and make the effort to communicate and understand.  Unfortunately, many companies take the easier road and create a 'controlling culture' of rules, regulations, policies and procedures that try to homogenize this range of people.
  2. Secondly, in a diverse workforce, that hasn't made inclusivity a central part of its culture, the diverse members can feel emotionally, psychologically (or even physically) under threat.  If this is the case, they will be less likely to be able to perform to their best, ultimately impacting the overall performance of the company.

Diversity is not a checkbox - and to fully reap the benefits of diversity, then inclusivity needs to be practised by all.


Leadership & Management

Diverse Thinking - Your Team's Secret Weapon

I’m a great fan of diversity in the work place – not just those more obvious visible aspects, or the broad range of cultural perspectives and experiential insights that people can bring, but also the way we are all wired differently. This is known as *neuro-diversity. Neuro-diversity can give a team strength by allowing it to ‘see different and to...

Read more

Leadership & Management

When does a Square Peg fit perfectly into  a Round Hole?

We often use the term 'a square peg in a round hole' to describe someone that in some way just doesn't fit either in the role, the office, or just the culture.  That interpretation comes from an early 19th-century philosophical treatise* that considered people and their situations as a wide range of shapes - including triangles and oblongs, and...

Read more

Leadership & Management

Accommodating the Non-standard Worker

By the late 40s, the US Air Force was experiencing an unacceptable increase in the rate of air incidents and crashes.  This was the era of the introduction of jet aircraft. Apart from appearing to be pilot error, there didn't seem to be a common underlying cause.   But there was.   Back in 1926, the Air Force realised that pilots came in all differ...

Read more

How do I maintain my culture as I grow and scale?  

Many organisations do have an excellent culture that they want to maintain; this is useful to know and take into consideration whether the company is recruiting to grow or implementing other internal changes or transformation initiatives.  

As new employees are brought into the company, the existing culture is at risk of being diluted by the new personalities. Strong cultures (good or bad) are infectious and are less likely to be diluted. And, by being acutely aware and openly conscious of the cultural elements (behaviours) that are important and need to be maintained, as new people are brought in, they will learn the expected behaviours. Otherwise, they will learn the tolerated behaviours - or even introduce a few of their own.  The learning process can be augmented by demonstration (lead by good example), and good behaviours can be rewarded when seen; similarly, behaviours that are counter to that can be corrected.  The recruitment process is a crucial element - ensure that prospective employees are aware of the culture that they will be getting into, and also ensure that they will be a cultural fit.

Leadership & Management

How should your culture grow with your company?

Last week, Andrew wrote about the 3 stages of growth that a company experiences.  While a company needs to adjust what it does as it grows, it also needs to change what it is, and this parallel change in being is a cultural journey. Your culture is created by the people within your company. Cultures often naturally drift and evolve over time, but...

Read more

Your Next Step

 If you would like to know more about your culture and how to optimise it, then consider our


Healthy Workplace Culture Program

  calendars to have the day completely free of interruptions or distractions (ie leave phones outside of the meeting (room).


    and sometimes, what you'd like to be good at.  This includes more than just your product or service.

   values and overall purpose.

   will come across many unknowns or conflicting views, we will highlight assumptions and gaps that individuals had

   about what should be a single shared vision – these are all very important to identify and often cannot be resolved

   there and then.

    what is important to you, and what you need to achieve over what timescale as you prepare to create the future

    you want.

    that will need further work. This document will provide the basis for your ongoing strategic and operations plans

- we can work further with you on those if you wish.

If you would like to chat informally about whether this program is for you, click here to arrange a time for us to connect.  

We will usually respond within 24 hours.

© 2022 Kingsford Consulting Ltd